x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Riddle over Turkey's missile shield plan questioned

While Ankara prepares to host talks on Iran's nuclear programme, questions arise about its own plans for a $1bn defence programme.

ISTANBUL // Less than two weeks before Turkey is likely to host new international talks about the Iranian nuclear programme, Ankara's stated interest in buying four missile defence batteries has raised a big question: why does the country think it needs a missile shield? "We will procure four batteries," Gen Metin Gurak, the spokesman of the general staff in Ankara, said during a regular media briefing on Friday. "The missiles are not directed against any country in particular. They are mobile and can be used on every front." Gen Gurak said the system would cost around US$1billion (Dh3.67bn), much less than the sum of around $8bn that had been reported by the Turkish press earlier. The general said the higher number had been included in a notification sent by the US government to Congress and had referred to 13 batteries, not four.

He said a decision on the tender for the system of four batteries would be made by October 13. Two US companies, including Raytheon, the maker of the Patriot system, as well as a company from China and one from Russia have put in bids. According to the Turkish ministry of defence, the decision to buy a missile defence system was made in 2006 and should be seen in the framework of a modernisation programme for the armed forces. Still, analysts say it is unclear what the role of the system would be. In recent years, Turkey has improved relations with countries like Syria, Iraq and Iran. Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, says his aim is to reach a level of "zero problems" with all neighbours. So why buy missiles in the middle of a recession with money that could be spent on education, roads or other projects? The media is baffled. "The Patriot riddle," the Tercuman newspaper said in a headline.

So far, officials have only been describing scenarios that they say the new system is definitely not meant for. Mr Davutoglu insisted the missiles had not come onto the agenda because Ankara feared an attack by Iran, which is accused by the West of working on a programme to develop nuclear weapons. "The acquisition of the missiles has nothing to do with Iran or any other country," Mr Davutoglu told CNN-Turk news. "One absolutely must not create a connection between the Patriots and Iran." Despite the official reassurances, the missile project may complicate Ankara's efforts to play a facilitating role in the row about Tehran's nuclear programme. According to Lale Kemal, a respected military affairs columnist, the missile episode is an example of how the views of the Turkish military, which is reluctant to accept more civilian oversight, can collide with the government's foreign policy aims. "In most cases, the threat perceptions of the [Turkish armed forces] do not match those of the political authority, as the latter has increasingly been trying to reduce tensions with all its neighbours," Mr Kemal wrote in Today's Zaman newspaper. "Differing perceptions of threat within the state and the influence of the military in designating the threats sometimes results in the unnecessary purchase of some military equipment." There is also speculation that Turkey, the only Nato country bordering Iran, could be playing a key role in a new US missile defence strategy after the cancellation of planned missile deployments in Eastern Europe. Turkey's territory lies within range of Iranian short and medium-range missiles. "We have updated our intelligence assessment of Iran's missile programmes, which emphasises the threat posed by Iran's short and medium-range missiles, which are capable of reaching Europe," the US President Barack Obama said last Thursday. Dean Wilkening, a missile defence expert at Stanford University, told the Turkish newspaper Sabah that Turkey could play an important role in a new regional missile defence system to protect the West against attacks. "Whether Turkey wants to play that role or not is another matter," he added. The debate about Turkey's procurement programme has erupted at a critical time. Earlier this month, Javier Solana, the EU's top foreign policy official, said renewed talks between international powers and Iran about Tehran's nuclear programme were likely to take place in Turkey. Officials from the so-called "5+1" group, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the US, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom, as well as Germany, are scheduled to meet Iranian envoys on October 1, the first such meeting for more than a year. Although Turkey does not take part in the talks themselves, observers say the fact that it may be the venue for a critical meeting like that demonstrates Ankara's growing influence in the region. Last year, Turkey organised indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria. Lately, Turkey tried to mediate between its neighbours Syria and Iraq. "For Iran, as for all countries in the region, Turkey's importance is increasing," columnist Semih Idiz wrote in the Milliyet newspaper. Ankara has repeatedly voiced its concerns over Iran's nuclear programme. On one hand, Turkey does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, a development that would change the balance of power in the region. On the other hand, Ankara also opposes any kind of military confrontation between the West and Tehran, because that would lead to new upheaval in a part of the world that was shaken by the war in Iraq only a few years ago. tsiebert@thenational.ae