The Middle East Channel

What’s on the menu for Erdogan’s visit to the U.S.

After a month of uncertainty, on Friday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally announced that he would attend the Nuclear Security Summit hosted by President Obama in Washington. He also announced that the Turkish Ambassador to the United States, Namik Tan, is preparing to fly back to Washington today. This is a clear sign ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

After a month of uncertainty, on Friday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally announced that he would attend the Nuclear Security Summit hosted by President Obama in Washington. He also announced that the Turkish Ambassador to the United States, Namik Tan, is preparing to fly back to Washington today. This is a clear sign that the recent phone conversation between the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has ended a month-long row between the two countries over the House Foreign Relations Committee’s passage of the Armenian resolution (H.R. 252) by a narrow margin on March 4, 2010. In protest of the resolution, Turkey recalled Ambassador Tan to Ankara for consultations. During this period of uncertainty, both Turkish government officials and business leaders in Turkey canceled/postponed their U.S. trips in line with the Turkish government’s protest over the Armenian resolution. The annual conference organized by the American-Turkish Council (ATC), the leading business association in the US promoting Turkish-American commercial and defense relations (considered by Washington insiders to be Turkish equivalent of AIPAC), was rescheduled for a future date. The conference has traditionally been attended by high-ranking Turkish and American officials. 

There are conflicting views among Turkey experts in Washington regarding the underlying causes of the recent tension between the two countries. While some argue that Erdogan has been pushing Obama’s limits, others maintain that Obama does not read the dynamics of Turkish domestic politics well, and still others claim that Turkey has given domestic calculations precedence over its relations with the US. The disagreement has two main causes: misapprehension of the concept "model partnership", and the difference of methodology in foreign policy.

The hierarchical relationship that long characterized US-Turkey relations began to change when Turkey refused to allow US forces across its territory into Iraq on March 1, 2003. After that, crisis became a normal component of bilateral relations through the rest of the Bush administration. But between these once close-knit allies, a new era for relations started with Barack Obama’s election victory. Different approaches to regional problems that had previously created crises helped the formation of what President Obama sought as a "model partnership" between the two countries. The model partnership proposes that bilateral relations should be based not on a perception of hierarchy but on mutual understanding and cooperation whenever possible. It also aims to diversify relations and not confine them only to security cooperation.  

Yet this transformation from a hierarchical relationship to a model partnership does not seem to be appreciated fully by analysts, especially those used to seeing the Turkey-US relationship within the former hierarchical framework (where any disagreement between the two states was considered to justify US intervention in Turkish domestic politics). As such, it is important to further conceptualize and give meaning to what the notion of a model partnership might actually look like in practice, including the potential roadblocks that can still make this re-framing of relations a difficult one.

There are different approaches that the two countries can now pursue to resolve certain conflicts, which can be summed up as a comprehensive approach versus a fragmented approach. Ankara fully supports Washington’s comprehensive approach in Iraq, Afghanistan, and more recently in the Middle East Peace Process. It appreciates Washington’s new strategy that treats these conflicts not as isolated issues but as regional problems, by taking into consideration the concerns of neighboring countries. However, Ankara believes that the US does not follow the same comprehensive strategy in dealing with Turkish-Armenian relations or in its attitude towards Iran. The Turkish side expects the US to deal with the Armenian and Iranian issues in a comprehensive manner and has thus found it lacking in these instances.

Since Prime Minister Erdogan did not postpone his visit to Washington as some observers expected, we can assume that Turkish-US relations are starting to get back on track. But now all eyes are turned towards potential points of contention between Turkey and the US that will be discussed during Erdogan’s visit to the US, especially the Turkish-Armenian relations and Iranian nuclear issue.

At the moment, Turkish-Armenian relations are trapped between two issues: the future of the Armenian resolution in the US House of Representatives vote and the protocols waiting to be approved by the Turkish National Assembly. Washington’s game plan was to use the H.R. 252 as a bargaining chip to urge Turkey to move forward on the protocols, normalize relations, and reopen its border with Armenia. However, the US plan failed due to several miscalculated factors, including domestic pressure in Turkey and Turkish-Azerbaijani relations.

Ankara claims that the Armenian Constitutional Court’s decision on protocols "contains preconditions and restrictive provisions which impair the letter and spirit of the protocols." Additionally, it argues that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, and Turkish-Armenian relations are all interrelated, and progress in one track would require progress in others. Washington, on the other hand, believes the ball is in Turkey’s court while Armenia tries to deal with Turkish-Armenian relations and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict separately. 

These are the main issues that will be on the table in a potential trilateral meeting between Erdogan, Obama, and Armenian President Sarkissian in Washington. However, Turkey still doubts the Obama administration’s willingness to deal with the issue comprehensively, taking into consideration the fact that Azerbaijan was not invited to the summit while Armenia, Georgia, Russia, and 40 other states were.

Ankara has also demanded assurances from President Obama for his April 24 speech addressing the Armenian-American community. Considering Erdogan’s recent decision to come to the US, it seems that Ankara has indeed received the necessary assurances from the US administration. Therefore, it would be safe to assume that the US administration will do its best to keep the resolution out of the House and not use the "g-word" on April 24. In Washington, Turkey will urge the OSCE Minsk Group member countries to speed up the process to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and in return, give necessary assurances to the US that it is still committed to the protocols.

The second potential point of conflict where the US and Turkey haven’t always seen eye-to-eye is regarding Iran. When the Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Philip Gordon, described the Obama administration’s perspective on Turkish-American relations last month at a Brookings lecture, he urged Turkey, more than anything, to be on the same page with the US on Iranian sanctions.

To send a strong signal to Iran, the US and its European allies are now trying to avoid a divided vote in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on a sanctions resolution. Turkey, like Brazil, is a key country in this sense to secure a united front if not a unanimous vote. However, Erdogan has repeatedly expressed his disapproval on imposing crippling sanctions on Iran by arguing that such sanctions would not serve their ultimate purpose. Ankara believes that the diplomatic track has not been fully exhausted, and any decision on Iran should be made through consultations, primarily with neighboring countries, since they are the ones that will most suffer the spillover effects of any sanctions on Iran. Ankara underlines the necessity to deal with the Iranian issue based on "universal" standards without "ideological constraints."

Ankara also thinks that the US is acting rather hastily on Iran in order to appease a vocal domestic opposition in the US against Iran, and is further using the Iranian issue as leverage on Israel to push for Middle East peace. Ankara certainly supports Obama’s efforts on the Middle East Peace Process and made it clear that it does not want nuclear weapons in the region. But while both Turkey and the US want to achieve peace in the Middle East and a nuclear weapon-free Iran, they clearly differ in their methodologies .

What would be Turkey’s vote in the UNSC on sanctions against Iran? Would Turkey give in to US pressure and change its rhetoric on the Iranian nuclear program? It is unlikely that Turkey would vote affirmatively on the UNSC vote on Iran, and abstaining would be considered a last resort. The "model partner" Turkey would keep voicing its concerns and propose methods to find a negotiated and peaceful solution to the Iranian problem.

A "Nuclear-Free Middle East" will most probably be the motto of the Turkish delegation at the Nuclear Summit. And a nuclear-free Middle East would obviously have implications not only for Iran, but also for another country in the region that already has nuclear capability: Israel. Yet again, it seems that everything is interrelated in the Middle East–a fact which is surely not lost on both sides of the Turkish-US relationship as they navigate through the varied landscapes of the ‘model partnership’ this week.

Nuh Yilmaz is Director of SETA-DC and Ufuk Ulutas is the Middle East Program Coordinator for SETA-DC

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