Spat over Iran may further strain relations between allies U.S., Turkey

By Janine Zacharia
Monday, May 24, 2010

JERUSALEM -- President Obama said last year that the United States and Turkey must "work together to overcome the challenges of our time." This month, the allies couldn't have been more out of sync.

Turkish mediation of an agreement for Iran to ship abroad part of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium has threatened the Obama administration's efforts to win consensus at the U.N. Security Council on a new package of Iran sanctions and thoroughly irritated U.S. officials.

A rougher patch in relations could be on the horizon if Turkey -- a key Muslim NATO ally crucial to U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq -- works to forestall a sanctions vote or votes against sanctions on Iran.

"We're always going to have important issues with Turkey that we're going to cooperate on. But, of course, on a matter so important to us, it will inevitably have an impact on the way Americans and Congress and the president will interact with Turkey," a senior administration official said.

The clash over Iran follows a rough patch in the relationship that emerged earlier this year after a House committee labeled as "genocide" Ottoman Turkey's killing of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915. In response, Turkey temporarily recalled its ambassador to Washington. To defuse the diplomatic spat, Obama refrained from using the word "genocide" in a statement he issued last month to commemorate the deaths.

This month's spat resulted not only because of ideological differences over the best way to deal with Iran's nuclear program, but also as a consequence of growing Turkish confidence as it seeks to assert itself as a regional power.

Turkey's leaders "want to increase the independence of Turkish foreign policy from the U.S. They see these kinds of things as an opportunity to form a more independent foreign policy," said Gokhan Bacik, an associate professor of international relations at Turkey's Zirve University.

A day after Turkey reached the deal with Iran, negotiated with Brazil, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced an agreement among the five permanent members of the Security Council on a fourth round of sanctions on Iran. Her quick declaration was widely perceived as a sign of U.S. irritation with Turkey, a non-permanent council member, and a slap in the face to Turkey's diplomatic efforts.

On Wednesday, Obama spent more than an hour on the telephone explaining to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan why the deal his country cut with Iran was incongruous with a U.S. push to isolate the Islamic republic over its nuclear program, according to U.S. and Turkish officials.

Obama acknowledged Turkey's mediation efforts and "stressed the international community's continuing and fundamental concerns about Iran's overall nuclear program as well as Iran's failure to live up to its international obligations," the White House said in a statement. Obama also told Erdogan that the sanctions push would continue, despite Turkey's opposition to new U.N. penalties on Iran. The U.S. official described the conversation as "frank."

Iran's agreement to ship 2,640 pounds of its low-enriched uranium out of the country was heralded in Turkey as a sign of Ankara's diplomatic prowess. Turkey, which aims to keep tensions in the Middle East low and improve economic and diplomatic ties with Iran, also saw the deal as a way to avert a further confrontation with the West and as a preliminary step toward bringing Iran back to the negotiating table.

"People in Washington think we're just trying to undermine the efforts of the U.S. and other allies at the U.N. Security Council, which is quite far from the truth. Actually, we know that this is not a solution to the overall problem. We have no such claim," a Turkish official said. "What we are trying to do is to create a sort of a basis to attract the Iranians and bring them back to the table to discuss the overall nuclear issue."

Still, U.S. officials said the deal fell short because Iran did not agree to freeze uranium enrichment and because it would still retain enough low-enriched uranium for a bomb if it decided to enrich the material to a higher level.

"For the Turks, it might be a Pyrrhic victory," said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "They look great in the Third World that they thumbed their nose at the United States. But they are really screwing up the relationship with the U.S."

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