Thursday, September 06, 2007

Turkey: Kurds, Iran and Prodding the United States

Summary

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 17 defended a preliminary natural gas deal with Iran to carry natural gas to Europe following strong criticism of the agreement from the White House. With U.S.-Turkish relations taking a serious hit from the Iraq war and its aftermath, Turkey is clearly sending a political message to the United States that it still has a number of ways to pressure Washington into cracking down on Kurdistan Workers' Party rebels in northern Iraq.

Analysis

Iran and Turkey have signed a preliminary agreement to pump Iranian natural gas to Europe via Turkey, a senior Turkish energy official who requested anonymity said July 16. A U.S. State Department spokesman criticized the agreement the same day, saying now is not the right time to invest in Iran's energy sector, and that Iran has not necessarily proved itself to be the most reliable partner in this regard. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded by defending the agreement, saying Iran had made an attractive offer. He added, "Should we not think of our country's interests at this point? Is the United States going to ask why we did not seek their permission? I believe [the United States] will understand."

Turkey signed a deal with Tehran in 2001 to ship 10 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Iranian natural gas from Tabriz to Europe via Turkey. Washington greatly disapproved of the deal at the time, not liking the idea of a NATO ally defying its sanction strategy against the Islamic republic. Iran and Turkey now apparently have decided to take their energy cooperation a step further by signing an agreement to pump 30 bcm of natural gas per year to Europe via Turkey, leaving no need for alternative supplies to feed the Nabucco pipeline project.

The European Union designed Nabucco to reduce its dependence on Russia for natural gas. Though clearly Europe will fund Nabucco, and Turkey makes the most sense as the primary transit point into Europe, there is still the question of which country actually will fill the pipeline with natural gas. In no particular order, the prospective suppliers for Nabucco are Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Complications attend each of these suppliers.

Turkmenistan, for example, would have to violate existing energy agreements with Russia to become a dedicated supplier for this project. Iraq remains an incoherent mess. Egypt and Saudi Arabia would require infrastructure largely built from scratch to do the job. Finally, Iran has a wall of political sanctions that would have to be broken down through a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. In spite of this, Iran is probably best positioned to supply Nabucco. The 2001 Iranian-Turkish deal already allows about 10 bcm to be shipped into Turkey, and unlike Saudi Arabia or Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey share a border. Moreover, Iran also has larger natural gas reserves than all the other prospective suppliers combined.

Turkey previously has talked about getting Russia to supply natural gas for the pipeline, which defeats the Europeans' original purpose of building it. By now saying Iran will be a major partner in Nabucco, Turkey appears to be sending a clear political message to Washington that Ankara is unhappy with the U.S. handling of Iraq and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Kurdish rebel group that focuses its attacks on Turkey -- using bases in northern Iraq as its refuge and a staging ground for operations.

Turkey harbors deep reservoirs of resentment toward the United States. Turks at practically every level of society argue that the United States has done nothing to contain the PKK, while Washington hypocritically expects full compliance from Ankara to help calm the situation in Iraq. Ankara also fears that any political settlement the United States attempts to push through in Baghdad will allow Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to make considerable progress toward greater political and economic autonomy -- something that could encourage Kurdish separatism inside Turkey. As a result, Turkey has spent the past few months engaged in heavy military posturing to convince the KRG and Washington that Ankara will not hesitate to send troops into northern Iraq to take care of the PKK, even if this ends up derailing Washington's political negotiations over Iraq.

Meanwhile, the Iranians are eager to take advantage of this deterioration in U.S.-Turkish relations by forming a strategic partnership with Ankara. Turkey also steadily has improved relations with Syria and has sought to assume the role of mediator between Israel and Syria, despite Washington's wish to keep Damascus isolated.

Iran, Turkey and Syria all find common cause in ensuring that Iraqi Kurdistan is boxed in by its neighbors. Iran also sees itself and Turkey as the rightful powerhouses of the Middle East -- as non-Arabs and as successors to the Ottoman and Safavid empires, respectively. Of course, plenty of divisive issues hamper such a partnership, including Turkey's secularist and Iran's Islamist ideology, as well as their opposing stances toward the West. But with the U.S.-Turkish relationship taking a beating, Iran sees a gap that it very much wants to fill. In fact, the Iranians already have begun to prove their worth to the Turks by launching cross-border operations against PKK rebels in northeastern Iraq.

This explains why Erdogan rather cheekily ridiculed Washington's expectation that Ankara ask for the U.S. position before signing this deal with Iran. Erdogan's comments also come just five days before the July 22 Turkish parliamentary polls. The ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party wants to extract maximum electoral mileage by tapping the growing anti-U.S. sentiment within the Turkish public. Though Erdogan is relatively confident that the AK Party will hold onto its parliamentary majority, he also knows his party will lose some seats, and he is trying to minimize this loss as much as possible.

This obvious political jab by the Turks intended to apply greater pressure on Washington to give into Turkish demands and crack down on PKK rebels in northern Iraq is sure to grab Washington's attention. The only way to break Turkey out of this growing strategic partnership with Iran and Syria will be through action against the PKK. In the interest of gluing Iraq back together, Washington does not appear prepared to take such action just yet -- meaning U.S.-Turkish relations are bound to suffer further as a result.

July 17, 2007

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