ISTANBUL // With Turkish-US relations clouded by concerns in Washington that Ankara may be turning eastward, the Turkish government faces a difficult choice over a request by Nato to install a missile defence system on its soil against possible attacks from neighbouring Iran against the West.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister and the architect of a new Turkish foreign policy that has seen relations with Tehran improve considerably in recent years, speaking before travelling to Brussels for a meeting of Nato defence and foreign ministers yesterday, refused to be drawn as to whether Turkey was in favour of installing the new defence system on its territory or not.
"We will evaluate together what can be done in the framework of a joint strategy," Mr Davutoglu told reporters in Ankara on Wednesday. According to Turkish press reports, Turkey wants to give the green light for the system only if all Nato members think there is a concrete threat to the alliance. There was no official confirmation for the reports.
Nato wants to expand existing missile defence systems to cover all 28 member states amid perceived threats such as possible missile attacks from North Korea or Iran. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato general secretary, told the foreign and defence ministers of the alliance yesterday the missile shield was a necessity.
"Nato's core mission to protect the 900 million citizens of Nato countries from attack must never change, but it must be a modern defence against modern threats," Mr Rasmussen said. "The threat is clear, the capability is clear and the costs are manageable."
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, said there was "broad agreement" on missile defence plans. But while the United States has been pushing for the new missile system, several Nato members are less enthusiastic. A final decision is to be taken at a Nato summit in Portugal next month.
For Turkey, the only Nato member bordering Iran, the issue is causing "a new headache", as one newspaper put it yesterday.
Turkey plays an important role in plans against possible missile strikes from Iran on targets in the West "because Turkey is an extremely useful platform to destroy ballistic missiles fired from Iran during their boost phase, when they speed up from zero to 1,200 metres per second", Serdar Erdurmaz, a disarmament specialist at the Centre for International Relations and Strategic Analyses, a think tank in Ankara, wrote in a report published this week.
James Townsend, the US deputy assistant secretary of defence for European and Nato policy, told reporters in Washington this week that Turkey was one of the key countries for the news system, according to Turkish news reports.
"As we look at where the ballistic-missile threats can come from, Turkey seems to us to be quite - very much along the front lines," Mr Townsend was quoted as saying by the Turkish Anatolia news agency. "And so in terms of geography, Turkey would be a good place to have some capability there," he added in an apparent reference to Turkey's neighbour, Iran.
But Ankara is reluctant to take any step that may increase tensions in the region and lead to problems in ties with Iran. "Turkey does not want to wake a sleeping threat by showing one country as a target," the news channel CNN-Turk quoted a Nato source as saying. At the same time, Ankara had not closed the door completely on the missile shield project.
After all, Turkey has to keep its ties with the US and expectations within Nato in mind when making the decision about the anti-missile system. "If Nato member Turkey shows a positive approach, there will not be any problem," Mr Erdurmaz wrote. "But a negative approach will be taken as a sign that the axis [of Turkey's foreign policy] is shifting and trigger reactions in the US and in Europe."
In May, Turkey raised eyebrows in the West by hammering out a deal with Brazil and Iran that was supposed to defuse the debate about Tehran's nuclear programme, which many Nato members suspect could have military aims despite Tehran's denials. Shortly afterwards, Turkey voted against new Iran sanctions in the United Nations Security Council, a decision that led to questions about a possible eastward shift of Ankara's foreign policy under the religiously conservative government.
Those doubts increased when relations between Turkey and ally Israel, already in crisis because of Israel's policy towards the Gaza Strip, hit rock bottom after nine Turkish activists died in an Israeli commando raid on Turkish ships carrying aid for Gaza on May 31.
Mr Davutoglu and other Turkish ministers deny that they are giving up Ankara's traditional western outlook and are looking for new partners in the East.