Turkey is a key player in NATO plans to install a missile shield to defend against a nuclear threat from Iran. But as the alliance's summit begins on Friday, Turkish support for the plan remains uncertain.
NATO fears Turkey is getting too close to Iran
Leaders of the 28 NATO member countries begin a two-day summit in Lisbon on Friday, and next to the war in Afghanistan, a missile defense shield to defend against Iran is set to be high on the agenda.
Turkey is seen as playing a key role in the program, but Ankara is far from enthusiastic. This week Turkish President Abdullah Gul said he wrote to NATO leaders explaining his country's concerns over the proposed missile defense shield.
Primarily, Ankara fears potential fallout with Iran, with which in the last few years it has rapidly developed strong political and economic ties. Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Bahcesehir University said the missile defense program is now viewed by Turkey's Western allies as a test of its allegiances.
"Turkey has been challenged by the US and the alliance, because recently the Turkish government has developed warm relations with Iran," he said. "Now Turkey has to prove whether it is still an actor and player within the alliance."
'No' vote on sanctions
Turkey's geographic proximity to Iran makes it a key player in the missile defense shield
Turkey's closeness with Iran was epitomized in July, when Ankara voted against a UN Security Council resolution to impose new sanctions on Iran for its continued uranium enrichment program. The vote set alarm bells ringing in the capitals of Ankara's Western allies - none more so than in Washington.
Concern had already been growing in the US even before the vote, following the collapse of relations between Turkey and Israel. Now Washington is using all its diplomatic muscle on Ankara to secure its participation in the missile defense program.
Turkey is the only NATO country bordering Iran, and is thus seen as playing a key role in the program. Earlier this month the head of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, John Kerry, visited Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan to press Washington's case. Even though he put a positive spin on the talks, he admitted little progress had been made.
"By the time we get to Lisbon I am very confident that we're all going to be on the same page and be able to move ahead very constructively," Kerry said.
The defense shield is meant to protect from a threat from Iran
Analysts say the failure to resolve the issue before the Lisbon summit is causing concern in both Washington and Europe. In the European Union's annual progress report published this month, it too stressed its concern with Turkey's apparent reluctance to tow the EU's foreign policy line.
But Prime Minister Erdogan seemed undaunted by the criticism and appeared to harden his position, making new demands on NATO.
"There is the issue of who will be given control of the [missile defense] system," Erdogan said. "If it is thought to be on our territory, then it should be definitely handed to us. Otherwise it is not possible for us to accept such a deal."
Tensions with NATO
Such a demand could prove hard for NATO to agree to, especially with increasing questions about Turkey's relations with Iran.
The Lisbon summit is expected to see hours of tough negotiations, with no guarantee of success, and Aktar said Turkey is more than capable of walking away from the negotiation table.
"Of course Turkey can say no. They have said no already in the UN Security Council," he said. "That won't impede the alliance to go ahead and install the missile shield elsewhere. But it will create tremendous tensions with the remaining 27 members of the alliance, not to mention Israel."
Even if NATO agrees on a compromise, as is expected, Turkey's apparent reticence will not go unnoticed. Failure to reach an agreement would likely be a turning point in Turkey's relations with the West.
Author: Dorian Jones, Istanbul/acb
Editor: Martin Kuebler