In September 2009 President Obama announced a major revision of the US European ballistic missile defence (BMD) architecture. Rather than carry on with the Bush administration’s plans to station long-range BMD systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, the US would, he said, deploy shorter-range interceptors and a variety of radar systems closer to Iran.
In a stroke he appeared to have solved two long-running problems. Eastern European countries that believed long-range BMD systems did not protect them from assault by Iran were now shielded. And the new plans offered the BMD proximity to Iran that Russia had been seeking for years.
However, while Obama’s new BMD architecture threw a protective arm around most NATO countries, it presented Turkey with a quandary. Currently in the process of deciding from where to procure missile defences, Turkey must choose wisely or face making a powerful enemy in Washington, Moscow or Tehran.
Recognising the shortcomings of the Bush administration’s plans, the Obama regime has rebuilt the US’s BMD architecture around a flotilla of moving Standard Missile-3 [SM-3] interceptors stationed on Aegis destroyers in European waters. The next stage of the rollout will see the SM-3s upgraded and moved onto land in strategic positions close to the Iran border. The most strategic of those is Turkey, the only Nato country to share a border with Iran.
"Turkey is really important to the US because it is so close to Iran," says Richard Weitz, senior fellow and director at the Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute. "The new European BMD architecture could work without their cooperation – interceptors could be stationed at sea or in Romania – but that wouldn’t be as effective."
After saying for years that any European BMD structure should be based around short-range interceptors in places such as Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, Russia moved the goalposts as soon as it began to get what it wished for. Not long after President Obama announced the new US-led architecture, Russia began calling for a joint Nato-Russian assessment into the alleged BMD threat before deciding on a joint response if a problem was uncovered. Procurement and distrust of the US is at the heart of Russia’s attempted stalling tactics. However, with the Americans unwilling to wait in the face of what they perceive to be an imminent danger from Iran, the Russians have been left with only one option to slow down the new Nato architecture: leveraging their close relationship with Turkey.
"Turkey and Russia have grown closer in recent years," says Gareth Jenkins, senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucus Institute’s Silk Road Studies Program. "Under the current Turkish government the two share some similarities in the way that they see the world – they both have strong authoritarian traditions, imperial nostalgia and a distrust of the West. In August 2008 Turkey refused to allow a US hospital ship, on its way to Georgia, through the Bosphorus for fear of upsetting Moscow. That shows how close the two countries have become."
However, Weitz believes Russia would not be too perturbed if the Turks decided to buy American anyway.
"Turkey’s relationship with Russia is good and Moscow will be trying to leverage that to put pressure on the Turks to buy Russian anti-missile systems," he says.
"However, if Turkey does decide to buy from the US, the Russians won’t be too worried as the BMD systems will only be short-ranged to deal with Iran. In that sense they are much more concerned about the systems being planned for Poland in 2018, which may have much longer ranges."
Turkey likes to think of itself as a potential peace broker between the East and the West, but in reality its position is perilous. Sitting easily within the 1,500km range of Iran’s Shahab-3 missile, its motivation for joining the US-led BMD architecture would be obvious. However, by doing so, it risks upsetting its current good relations and turning itself into a target.
"Under the current government Turkey has moved much closer to Iran both politically and economically," says Jenkins. "Bilateral trade with Iran has grown eightfold to $10bn a year since the Justice and Development [AKP] party came to power in 2002, and Iran is now Turkey’s biggest supplier of natural gas after Russia. The two also cooperate in terms of intelligence and occasionally the timing of military operations against the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] and the Party For Free Life in Kurdistan [PJAK]."
Jenkins continues: "To date, Iran remains the only country which has extradited PKK militants to Turkey. And Turkey has been the strongest supporter of Iran’s stance over its nuclear programme. In contrast, underlying distrust of the US – which was always there – has risen to the surface in the last few months, particularly over the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident [the Turkish ship destined for Gaza before it was intercepted by Israel in May] and the UN Security Council vote on Iran in June. Personally, I don’t think Turkey would be wise to side with Iran but, at the moment under the current government, it looks more likely to side with Iran than with the US."
The Greek threat?
A further complication in Turley’s procurement choice is their desire, no doubt formed with half an eye on Greece, to be able to move their missile defence mechanisms wherever they please.
"Turkey’s relationship with Greece isn’t as bad as it once was but they will want a BMD system that can be functional in all directions to cover off Iran, Russia, Greece and even Syria," says Weitz.
"To do that they’ll need a mobile system with air capability. Greece could also act as a useful political shield against Iran because Turkey can say their BMDs are to defend them from the Greeks rather than being part of any anti-Iranian Nato architecture."
However, Jenkins doesn’t think the age-old concerns about Greece are what drive Turkey’s desire to have BMD systems of their own.
"I don’t think the Turkish military are worried about a missile attack from Greece," he says. "They want their own BMD system simply because Turkey would prefer to be self-sufficient in defence rather than rely on anyone else. Turkey had a lot of difficulty trying to persuade Nato members to send missile defence systems to Turkey in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, where there was a genuine concern that Saddam could send a few missiles with chemically or biologically armed warheads in Turkey’s direction.
"This reluctance really shook Turkey’s confidence in its Nato allies. As a result, I think the desire to have its own BMD system is not so much against a specific perceived threat but because there is a belief that, if a threat ever appears Turkey cannot rely on anyone to come to its defence, not even its Nato allies."
Future BMD outlook
Having pledged at least $1bn to create its own BMD network, the big question for Turkey now is where will they spend the money: Russia or the US? And if it’s Russia, will the systems be compatible with the US’s new architecture?
"It’s too early to tell yet," says Weitz. "Russia will offer them more in terms of technology transfer. The US will have more compatibility with Nato. Turkey was supposed to have made an announcement on this by now.
"I don’t know if they haven’t got the funds yet or whether they’re just taking their time over the decision but they’re in a strong position because they can play the Russians and the Americans off against each other. They have to buy aeroplanes as well as missile defences, so there’s no reason they can’t buy some from each and keep everyone happy."