Turkey’s assertive role in regional impasses, from the Gaza crisis to Iran’s nuclear defiance, has acquired new complexity in the wake of an Israeli attack on aid ships bound for the besieged Palestinian strip and since Brazil angered American officials by releasing a confidential April letterfrom the U.S. president that encouraged Ankara and Brasilia to seek a deal with Tehran.
The script of Turkey’s new “strategic depth” doctrine of engagement with neighbors has shifted and reshaped many times in recent years and suddenly it has transformed once again around what might be called “tactical breadth,” centered on policy initiatives that are drawing applause from some quarters, anger from others.
For starters, an irate Israel sent its naval forces to storm an aid flotilla carrying hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists in international waters before dawn on Monday, reportedly killing at least 10 activists, some of them Turkish nationals.
In response, the Turkish government warned of “irreparable consequences” and recalled its ambassador. There’s little doubt the attack will further strain Turkish-Israeli relations.
While nominally the project of an international group of nongovernmental organizations, the six-ship flotilla was apparently seen by the Israeli government as an extension of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly harsh stance toward Israel – a shift that began for many with the “one-minute” tirade last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos when he told Israeli President Shimon Peres: “You know well how to kill people,” referring Israel’s deadly war on Gaza that started in December 2008.
The diplomatic tension between the two allies worsened after Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, gave Turkey’s ambassador a public dressing down in January to protest a Turkish television series that criticized Israel. Soon after, the Turkish prime minister called Israel “the main threat to peace in the Middle East,” following Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s comments likening him to the leaders of Libya and Venezuela.
Erdoğan’s stance has gained widespread support on Arab streets but many experts, diplomats and observers in Turkey have voiced their concerns over the deteriorating relations, adding their voice to those in Israel who fear Turkey is shifting from East to West.
Aiding allies’ enemy?
While linking the chill in Turkish-Israeli relations to the Justice and Development Party’s, or AKP, change in Turkey’s foreign policy, Israeli professor Efraim Inbar said Turkey was drifting apart from the West, “which also includes Israel.”
“I think, Turkey has moved away from the West after the AKP’s second election victory. The Turkish foreign policy is being reshaped and the clearest example of this shift is the relations with Israel,” Inbar told the daily Cumhuriyet over the weekend.
Responding to a question over an aid convoy to Gaza, Inbar rejected the criticism over Israel’s threat to the flotilla and its blockade on the strip. “We are in an ongoing war with Gaza and Hamas is our enemy. I’ve never heard the United States or the United Kingdom sending aid to Germany during World War II.”
Describing Turkey’s de facto aid to Hamas as a “disappointing” move, Inbar also said: “Gaza is battling against our Jewish state and wants to destroy it. We are sending aid to Gaza and the situation there is not as bad as it has been claimed by some.”
Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, Gabby Levy, also echoed Inbar’s remarks in an interview with private television channel CNNTürk and labeled the aid convoy “provocation” in the already tense region. While insisting that, “there is no humanitarian tragedy” in Gaza, Levy said: “Gaza has witnessed a huge destruction and we don’t deny this. But instead of using them to build a hospital, Hamas is making tunnels with the building materials. That’s why we don’t allow those materials.”
According to Inbar, Turkey is the only Western country that supports Iran’s nuclear drive, Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip and Sudan’s controversial President Omar al-Bashir, who has been accused of crimes against humanity. “We have never heard the Erdoğan government criticizing [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. On the contrary, it even sent a congratulation message to him after he was re-elected. However, Erdoğan has been only slamming Israel.”
In hot pursuit of ‘tactical breadth’
The nuclear question appears to be a main ingredient in the latest transformation of Turkey’s foreign policy. On the one hand voicing criticism of Israel’s assumed nuclear arsenal while on the other supporting Iran’s ambitions in the nuclear realm are two positions that contradict much of the policy of Turkey’s NATO allies.
Before the bloody confrontation off the coast of Gaza, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva brokered the May 17 nuclear swap deal under which Iran agreed to ship 1,200 kilograms of low enriched uranium to Turkey, and in turn to receive 120 kilograms of nuclear fuel for its Tehran reactor.
Since then, Brazil and Turkey have repeatedly urged the U.N. Security Council to refrain from a new wave of harsher sanctions against the Islamic republic, arguing the deal reflects concessions the West has long sought. But the United States, its allies and even Russia, which has the closest political ties to Tehran of any major world power, voiced their skepticism over the nuclear deal.
But now revelation of a letter outlining a similar nuclear fuel swap deal that the United States had unsuccessfully pursued in October has put the White House in an awkward position. In the April 20 letter, which the White House did not dispute, the U.S. president thanks his Brazilian counterpart for meeting with him and Erdoğan on the sidelines of the U.S.-hosted nuclear security summit about a possible confidence building measure with Iran.
While Obama expresses skepticism in the letter about Iran’s willingness to send its uranium abroad and its motivations for pursuing negotiations with Brazil and Turkey after rejecting a similar deal put forward by the U.N.’s atomic guardian, International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, in October, he also appears to put forward terms for an acceptable fuel swap deal that are very similar to those in an agreement that the Brazil and Turkey signed with Iran.
“For us, Iran’s agreement to transfer 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium [LEU] out of the country would build confidence and reduce regional tensions by substantially reducing Iran’s LEU stockpile,” Obama wrote, according to a copy of the letter posted May 27 on the website of Brazil’s foreign ministry. Both Brazil and Turkey had protested that their Tehran talks were fully vetted by Washington, but a letter on White House stationary placed the matter in new light.
Guide for swap deal
Brazilian officials, who are shocked that the United States is raising objections to the agreement and its terms, have said Lula and Erdoğan used Obama’s letter as a guide when they negotiated a deal with Tehran.
Brazil’s foreign minister, Celso Amorim, said his government was encouraged “to implement the proposals in October, without deviation, and we did.” As for the 20 percent enrichment, he said, “Nobody told us, ‘Hey, if you do not stop the enrichment to 20 percent, forget the deal.’”
The Washington Post said Erdoğan also received a similar letter.
While dismissing the letter as “selective” leaking, a senior U.S. official also said Obama’s letter was designed to deal with a discrete problem, adding it has been in regular contact with Brazil and Turkey.
“It was a letter that was responding to something they were doing, in which we were pointing out that what you are doing falls well short of what we were seeking,” the Washington Post quoted him as saying on Friday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to meet with her Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, next week, where the Iran deal would be further discussed, officials also said.
According to some sources, the letter was clear evidence that Washington was changing the goal in favor of harsher sanctions against Tehran, but the leaked letter was also seen as a sign of Brazilian resentment to what it sees as its and Turkey’s diplomatic triumph that was snubbed by the United States and other big powers.
“Sure, had Brazil and Turkey actually persuaded the Iranians to verifiably end their whole suspected nuclear weapons program, America would have endorsed it. But that is not what happened,” the New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman said. Instead, Friedman said, the deal has weaken the global coalition to pressure Iran to open its nuclear facilities to U.N. inspectors.
“Turkey and Brazil are both nascent democracies that have overcome their own histories of military rule. For their leaders to embrace and strengthen an Iranian president who uses his army and police to crush and kill Iranian democrats – people seeking the same freedom of speech and political choice that Turks and Brazilians now enjoy – is shameful,” he wrote last week.
Ending double standards on NPT
Meanwhile, Obama’s Iran letter surfaced just as the United Nations was concluding a month-long round of talks aimed at updating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.
Western diplomats said on Saturday that the United States has agreed on a document that urges Israel to join the treaty and subject its nuclear facilities to oversight by the IAEA in a development widely credited to Turkey’s insistence on an end to double standards.
Muslim nations, led by Turkey and Egypt, have been lobbying hard at international arena to force Israel to disclose its assumed nuclear arsenal and sign the same treaty that Iran has agreed to. Turkey and Egypt’s intention to raise the issue at Obama’s nuclear summit in April had made Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel his visit to Washington. He is expected to meet the U.S. president on Tuesday to discuss Iran, the peace process with the Palestinians and the NPT.
On Saturday, Israel sharply criticized the U.N. move, calling the plan “deeply flawed.” “It ignores the realities of the Middle East and the real threats facing the region and the entire world,” Israel added.
The plan “singles out Israel, the Middle East’s only true democracy and the only country threatened with annihilation,” the statement said. “Yet the terrorist regime in Iran, which is racing to develop nuclear weapons and which openly threatens to wipe Israel off the map, is not even mentioned.”
On Sunday, a senior Israeli official said Netanyahu was given “unequivocal assurances” from Obama that the accord agreeing to talks on a nuclear weapons-free Mideast would not endanger Israel. The premier was “promised that there would be no resolutions adopted at the U.N. that would hurt the vital interests of Israel,” the official added.