TEHRAN - Iran's supply of natural gas to Turkey was inexplicably slashed by 70%
last Friday, in one of the coldest months of the year. On the same day, Foreign
Minister Abdullah Gul raised the tension between the two countries by calling
for greater Iranian "transparency" over Tehran's nuclear program.
"There should not be an armament race in the region," he said. "We follow a
policy to clean the entire Middle East [of] WMD [weapons of mass
While ordinary Turks braced for shortages and chilly weeks ahead, analysts
speculated that the cut was a calculated move
by Tehran aimed at warning Ankara not to become involved in its escalating row
with the West.
Until recently, Ankara had remained largely silent on the view it takes of
Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear energy program. But despite publicly
supporting Iran's quest for nuclear energy, Turkish officials have privately
spoken of their fears at the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Last month Turkey's ambassador to the US, Faruk Logoglu, broke his
country's silence, telling the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies that
"Iran's nuclear weapons would be a serious threat to security in the Middle
East. The European Union's effort is unlikely to succeed. Direct US-Iran talks
When Iran broke the seals of some of its most sensitive nuclear processing
equipment last week, it set itself on a collision course with the West. As a
key US ally, a historical adversary of Iran and the most significant regional
military partner for Israel (the country is seen as most likely to head an
attack on Iran), Turkey appears increasingly concerned over how it will manage
to continue the balancing role it has played so far in the region.
With an estimated 64 million and 70 million people respectively, Turkey and
Iran are the two most populous countries in the region and natural rivals.
Now, news that the incoming Turkish ambassador to Tehran is none other than
Gurcan Turkoglu, Gul's top foreign-policy adviser, is a strong indication of
just how much importance Ankara is giving its Iran file.
In a sign of the increasing tension, Ankara issued a statement on Saturday
calling on Tehran to enter "full and transparent cooperation with the EU … and
the IAEA" (International Atomic Energy Agency).
"We don't want a new nuclear power in the region," a Turkish diplomat in Tehran
told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity, "and we don't want another
crisis in the region either."
With tension between Iran and the West peaking, the question of how Iran's most
influential neighbor, Turkey, will react to the unfolding crisis becomes
increasingly prominent. A key US ally in the Middle East, Turkey has managed to
steer a remarkably uncontroversial course in recent years, which has seen it
maintain cordial relations with Tehran, even as it remained the only Muslim
country with a high-profile military cooperation with Iran's arch-rival,
But analysts fear that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran would almost
inevitably prompt a nuclear escalation, as regional powers Turkey, Saudi Arabia
and even Egypt move to develop a nuclear deterrent.
Turkey has sought to hammer home the point in two recent high-level meetings
with Iranian politicians that the nuclear crisis should be defused in Vienna,
within the context of the IAEA. In New York in October, on the sidelines of the
United Nations meeting in which Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad delivered
an inflammatory speech, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan advised the
Iranian leader not to escalate the crisis.
A month later, Gul was telling Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki that
his country must remain well within the red lines laid down by Iran's European
negotiating partners. The advice was not heeded, as is clear by Iran's recent
"The new regime does not care, they seem to be playing for isolation," the
Turkish diplomat said. "We can't offer them anything because we're not a
nuclear power," he added, alluding to ongoing talks between Moscow and Tehran.
Russia is the primary sponsor of the Iranian nuclear program. An Iranian
delegation was due in Moscow on Monday for talks on the issue.
But as a Muslim (albeit strictly secular), non-Arab country, Turkey can offer
Tehran advice in a way that the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) can no
longer lay claim to. In the event that talks fail, Turkey is the only country
in Iran's vicinity on which the US has prepositioned tactical nuclear weapons
(an estimated 90) that it could deploy against Iranian facilities.
The veritable who's who of US and Israeli officials who processed through
Turkey in recent weeks for consultations may be a reflection of this.
First came US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, followed by Federal Bureau
of Investigation chief Robert Mueller. Porter Goss, the new head of the Central
Intelligence Agency, also visited, just days before the arrival of the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization secretary general, Jaap De Hoop Scheffer.
Finally, Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Dan Halutz held discussions with
the head of the Turkish military, General Hilmi Ozkok, and Turkish President
Ahmed Necdet Sezer. The leading left-nationalist daily, the Cumhuriyet,
reported that talks centered on how to deal with Iran.
The Turkish Weekly journal claimed further revelations. In a December 27
article it said Halutz had asked permission for training Israeli
commandos in Turkey's Bolu and Hakkari mountains. The magazine speculated that
the Israeli request had to do with preparations for operations in northwestern
Iran's mountainous territory.
In November, Israel's Yediot Aharonot newspaper revealed that private Israeli
security firms had sent experts to Iraq's northern Kurdish region to give
Kurdish security forces covert training. The newspaper said the teams had
originally entered northern Iraq from Turkey, but had to abandon their mission
after receiving a credible warning of an impending al-Qaeda attack on their
The Turkish press was agog at such goings-on. The respected Milliyet daily
argued that Goss and National Intelligence Agency Undersecretary Emre Taner
discussed the role played by Turkey in Iraq, as well as the controversial issue
of the Kurdish separatist movement PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party).
Goss reportedly asked for Turkey's support against Iran's nuclear program and
warned Ankara that a US air operation against Iran might be in the offing.
According to German news agency DDP, Goss assured his Turkish counterparts that
they would have a few hours advance warning of an air strike against Iran. He
is also said to have given the green light for the Turkish army to strike PKK
camps in Iran on the day of the attack.
Additionally, it was reported that Goss sought to convince Turkish officials
that Iran supported the PKK and al-Qaeda and would seek to export its
revolution to its western neighbor. But in Tehran, EU diplomats scorned such
"The Americans use various arguments that are not necessarily rooted in fact,"
an EU diplomat based in Tehran said. "If they [the Iranians] want to export the
Shi'ite revolution, they won't do it in Turkey, a totally Sunni Muslim country,
and they'll employ Qom [Iran's religious capital] and religious proselytizing,
rather than a nuclear bomb, in doing so."
But US attempts to intimidate Turkey into cooperating against Iran could
yield results. Ankara may decide that it has learned from the punishment
inflicted on it by Washington after its parliament's decision to ban US troops
from opening a northern front against Iraq from Incirlik, during the 2003
invasion, and offer logistic support.
On the other hand, Turkey will not want to jeopardize its advantageous trade
links with Iran. Bilateral trade jumped in 2005 to an estimated US$4 billion,
up from $1 billion in 2000. Turkish intelligence has also established a good
rapport with its Iranian counterparts on the Kurdish issue since 2003.
Now, a working group meets twice a year to discuss how to deal with Kurdish
separatism, while border meetings are arranged on a monthly basis between the
governors of Turkish and Iranian provinces that contain Kurdish populations.
Turkey is painfully aware that a change of regime in Iran and ensuing Iraq-like
instability would almost inevitably lead to the creation of an independent
"The Turks know that long after the dust has cleared and the Americans have
disappeared over the horizon again, they will be paying for this [collusion in
action against Iran] for many years," an EU diplomat said. "Erdogan is a
conservative politician and he will not endanger his country."
A former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and regional specialist agreed that it
is "unlikely that Turkey would give the Israelis clearance to overfly their
territory in order to attach an Iranian target. And if they flew without
clearance, their nice relationship with Turkey would end."
Should Turkey decide to veto support for any punitive strikes on its Persian
neighbor, the best alternative might be Iraqi Kurdistan. No longer at the mercy
of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Kurdish leadership has been more open about its
collaboration with Israel since the 2003 invasion.
Now, Iran-watchers are arguing that launching a US or Israeli strike from Iraqi
Kurdistan would have several advantages. The aircraft would not need midair
refueling, as would be the case if the raid were launched from Tel Aviv.
Sulaymaniyyah and Irbil airports are in the process of receiving full
international licensing, which implies nighttime instrument capability and the
potential for receiving and servicing large transport aircraft. And the Kurdish
leadership is far more sympathetic toward Israel than its Arab neighbors.
"Iraqi Kurdistan cannot be used by Israeli special forces … because the
Kurdistan region remains part of Iraq and the US continues to control Iraq
airspace," Nijyar Shemdin, the representative of the Kurdistan region to the
US, told Asia Times Online. "All flights into and out of Iraqi airspace obtain
permission from the US military in Qatar. For Israeli operations against Iraq
to occur, it would require the support of the Iraqi federal government, the US
government and the Kurdish regional government. It is utterly impossible."
Analysts point out that Israel's 1981 strike against Iraq's nuclear reactor in
Osirak could only have been carried out with US cooperation. Israeli aircraft
crossed Jordanian and Saudi Arabian airspace without being detected by
US-supplied Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) radars overflying
Wayne White, a former deputy director of the Bureau of Intelligence and
Research Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia, pointed out that
he doubted whether "the issue of violating a country's airspace would be a
major consideration with respect to Jordan, Saudi Arabia or perhaps even Turkey
if the Israelis decided to go forward with such a strike".
"If one is doing something that bold, controversial, outrageous, the issue of
violating airspace would be very much secondary to other considerations," he
Iason Athanasiadis is an Iran-based correspondent.