This year, Turkey celebrates its 60th anniversary as a member of the NATO alliance. As a Muslim-majority country with close ties to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Turkey’s participation in NATO is integral to the alliance’s influence beyond Europe’s borders. However, while Turkish membership provides the alliance with extended regional access, Ankara continues a reckless rapprochement with Iran.
Turkey’s Role in NATO
Turkey’s reluctance to join its NATO allies in taking tougher action and implementing sanctions against Iran and its nuclear weapons program is a point of considerable consternation throughout the alliance. When it rejects sanctions on Iran and allows never-ending diplomatic negotiations, Turkey provides Tehran with diplomatic cover, allowing it to advance its nuclear program. The Obama Administration’s decision to placate Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by participating in diplomatic discussions with Iran earlier this month was a mistake. As experience has repeatedly shown, similar meetings have failed to achieve any progress.
Ankara currently hosts a U.S. radar station as part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), the Obama Administration’s missile defense plan to protect allies and the U.S. homeland. As Iran continues to advance its nuclear agenda, Turkey will need the support of its NATO allies, not only to guarantee its national security but also to constrain Iran’s regional ambition. Ankara should recognize that by strengthening its relationship with NATO it will advance mutual interests. Doing so will allow NATO to respond more effectively to the rise of any future threat, whether from Iran or elsewhere.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Turkey’s security and regional leadership are threatened by Iran’s nuclear weapons program and sponsorship of terrorist organizations. While Washington is leading the charge for international sanctions, Turkey is reluctant to participate, as it imports one-third of its crude oil from Iran. Ankara’s strong trade ties with Iran amount to more than $15 billion annually and the two countries are looking to expand trade to $30 billion by 2015. In June 2010, Turkey teamed with Brazil and attempted to thwart Iranian sanctions. Under the Tehran Declaration, Turkey and Brazil proposed a nuclear fuel swap, whereby Iran would transfer half of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for fuel for a medical research reactor. Following Washington’s immediate rejection of the deal, the U.N. Security Council voted to impose sanctions. Turkey voted against them. By protecting Iran, Turkey raised doubts about whether it could be counted on by western partners to counter the Iranian nuclear threat.
Though unwilling to take any overt action against Iran, Turkey’s decision to host a U.S. radar station as part of NATO’s missile defense shield last September was a step in the right direction. Significantly, a recent survey by the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) found that 54 percent of Turks support the option of Turkey’s nuclear armament should Iran obtain nuclear weapons. While Turkey may want to resist confrontation with its neighbors—particularly one armed with nuclear weapons—having a NATO nuclear deterrent offers Turkey a more secure environment.
Missile Defense in Turkey
In September 2011, Turkey agreed to base an AN/TPY-2 radar station in Malatya Province, approximately 435 miles from the Iranian border. An AN/TPY-2 is a portable X-band, high-resolution, phased-array radar capable of tracking enemy ballistic missiles in flight. With this agreement, the United States achieved an important step toward the implementation of the EPAA. It was also a welcome development regarding NATO’s ballistic missile defense capability, which became a core competency of the alliance in November 2010.
The agreement, however, was not concluded without controversy. On November 26, 2011, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard aerospace division, stated that Iran will attack missile defense installations in Turkey (as well as other targets) if the United States or Israel attacks Iran. Additionally, Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has used the station as a political weapon against Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), ludicrously charging that it is a “shield” for Israel.
On February 26, 2012, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe said, “We have the forces in place...at a radar site in southern Turkey.” This was the first high-level confirmation that the radar became operational according to schedule. The participation of the Turkish government in the EPAA required political boldness, and it places Turkey geopolitically closer to the West.
Turkey and NATO: Next Steps
The Erdoğan administration’s attempts to satisfy both Iran and its western allies will not work. As long as Iran continues to build its nuclear capacity and Ankara shields Tehran from international pressure, allies will question Turkey’s loyalties. Despite its posturing, Ankara is unlikely to resist NATO missile defense, as it is crucial to maintaining Turkish security.
Following Ankara’s announcement that it would host the radar station, Tehran became increasingly belligerent, issuing a series of threats that Turkey will not soon forget. Iran’s meddling in the region—in both Syria and Iraq—has drawn ire from Ankara. The more Iran continues to stir up trouble, the more Turkey is likely to align itself with NATO. By establishing a NATO Defense Against Terrorism Center of Excellence in 2005, Turkey proved it is willing to make a substantial contribution to the alliance’s capabilities.
In the coming months, the Obama Administration should take the following steps to ensure that relations with Turkey are strengthened on national security matters and that U.S. interests are protected:
- Ensure that the radar in Turkey is making the greatest possible contribution to the ballistic missile defense capability of the United States and its friends and allies.
- Recognize the advancement of a ballistic missile threat and encourage Turkey to participate in high-level NATO threat assessments.
- Deploy multiple radar assets in the region, including in space, to enhance U.S. radar coverage in the event of an Iranian surprise attack on ground-based radars.
- Call on Turkey to honor existing sanctions on Iran by the United Nations Security Council and strengthen its compliance with others as imposed by the United States and the European Union.
Despite Ankara’s unwillingness to admit the ineffectiveness of its “zero problems” policy, Turkey’s path to a secure future lies with NATO and honoring NATO commitments. Ankara took a politically bold decision by agreeing to deploy a U.S. radar station on its soil. As relations with Tehran continue to deteriorate, Ankara has an opportunity to strengthen relations with the United States and the NATO alliance by bolstering regional security.
Morgan Lorraine Roach
is a Research Associate in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Michaela Bendikova is Research Assistant for Missile Defense and Foreign Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.