WikiLeaks I: Turkey-Iran

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the first in the series.

Forget textbooks! Everything you need to teach that International Relations 101 course next semester can be found in the latest stash of documents dropped by WikiLeaks.

Case in point: the notion of national interest as it plays out in considerations of international security. It’s clear that preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability is a top priority of the US State Department. And from what we’ve seen so far, this is an objective shared by the region’s Arab governments.

But for Turkey, it seems, Iran’s nuclear ambitions take a back seat to what Anakara views as the more important threat to regional stability—more American military action in the Middle East. According to one of the recently leaked cables,

Turkish contacts, and indeed even MFA interlocutors, have acknowledged in the recent past that Turkey sees a military attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities as the worst possible outcome on the Iran issue. Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability would only be the second worst outcome. This hints at the depth of Turkey’s anxiety about the dangers to regional stability, including Turkey’s, of the unintended consequences of any further military action in the region, and explains Turkey’s commitment at almost any cost to continued western diplomatic engagement with Iran. As one contact explained, “After the traumatic violence in Iraq, and fearful that some countries still think military action is an option with Iran, Turkey will do anything to prevent armed conflict.” The GoT’s approach on this score enjoys some public support: Turkish public opinion also considers an attack against Iran as more dangerous to Turkey than Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Indeed, almost a third of Turks polled do not consider a nuclear-armed Iran to be a threat, believing that Iran would never attack a fellow Muslim country.

Of course, security isn’t defined exclusively by the shadow of war.

Strengthening a long-term energy and commercial relationship: Turkey does not hide the fact that its own growing energy security needs compel it to look to all available sources, including Iran, for energy. In response, we have underscored that the USG supports the diversification of Turkish gas supplies, while cautioning that Iran has proven to be an unreliable partner in the past and reaffirming USG concern over new energy deals with Iran. Turkey is also actively seeking to expand trade ties with Iran: Both Turkish and Iranian officials have publicly called for bilateral trade volume, which was $10 billion in 2008, to reach $20 billion by 2012 — a goal most trade experts say is wildly unrealistic. Furthermore, Turkey is taking steps to protect and expand financial ties with Iran, for example by continuing to allow Iran’s Bank Mellat (sanctioned by the USG under E.O. 13382) to operate branches in Istanbul and Ankara, and agreeing to conduct bilateral trade in Turkish Lira or Iranian Rials rather than dollars and Euros to avoid having to clear the payments through US or European banks.

In case you might be worried that Turkey’s approach to the Iranian issue tends to be heavily realist in its predilections, Ankara displays a faith in liberal institutions and multilateral cooperation as well:

As long as Davutoglu controls Turkish foreign policy, our Turkish contacts predict that Ankara will seek multiple avenues for bilateral and multilateral engagement with Iran, deepening bilateral cultural and economic ties, and working with regional organizations like the D-8 (ref D), the Economic Cooperation Organization (ref E) and the OIC to maximize engagement. Indeed, Davutoglu’s MFA sees regional IOs like these as much more useful tools for engaging Iran, and thus committing Iran incrementally to pursue regionally cooperative policies, than previous FMs did, according to contacts.

On the question of the degree to which multinationals influence the decision-making of states in their international relations, another cable demonstrates that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is as much the representative of the American government as he is of American corporations.

We much appreciate SecDef’s help in advocating for U.S. firms competing for key projects in Turkey, and hope he can raise both Sikorsky’s and Raytheon’s cases in person. Sikorsky’s “International Blackhawk” proposal holds remarkable benefits. This deal represents a new level of industrial partnership; Sikorsky guarantees that it would build in Turkey — for sale outside of Turkey — one Blackhawk for each one the GOT builds and buys for itself; this is a boon of hundreds of millions of dollars for the Turkish economy. On Air Defense, Raytheon’s PAC-3 is competing in a tender for Turkey’s air defense. Raytheon also seeks to take advantage of Turkish industry’s ability to co-produce complex systems with us and would produce systems for sale in the UAE and elsewhere. The benefit to Turkey’s economy from such co-production would likely exceed USD 1 billion. Technically and operationally, there is no system which can compete with the PAC-3, but Turkey’s Defense Ministry seeks to broaden competition to include lower-cost options from Russia and even from European producers. Raytheon often asks us to remind the Turks that a decision on requests for support on Missile Defense should not necessarily affect a decision on PAC-3.

But US firms aren’t the only ones in on the action. Turkey’s firms, much to the displeasure and worry of US officials, were likely doing their own business, though not exclusively with the West.

The U.S. has information about several transactions involving Turkish firms planning to export and import from Iran arms and related material controlled by the Wassenaar Arrangement. Specifically, Iran is interested in procuring Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) .38 caliber and wadcutter bullets; 40 mm automatic grenade launchers; 5.56 mm composite magazines (for M16 assault rifles), and 7.62 X 39 mm and 7.62 X 51 mm composite magazines from Turkey. In addition, we understand that a Turkish firm may also be pursuing a deal to import plastic explosives and nitrocellulose from Iran.

The U.S. wants to provide this information to Turkish officials, request that they investigate this activity and use all available means to prevent these firms from exporting and importing such arms to and from Iran. In addition to any domestic Turkish authorities that may apply, these activities may also be in violation of both United Nations Security Resolution (UNSCR) 1747 and U.S. domestic authorities.

The United States also worried that exports to Iran may have originated in the United States. How embarrassing!

According to Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) records, Turkey received 181 MK-19 40 mm grenade launchers from the United States in 1995. However, we do not know definitively if any of these are among the 40 mm grenade launchers contemplated as part of the sale to Iran. We note, however, that if any U.S.-origin defense equipment (including technical data) is re-transferred to Iran, that would violate Section 3 of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). As a consequence, Turkey could lose its country eligibility under the AECA to purchase or lease defense articles, including Patriot or Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, or services, or to receive credits or guarantees relating to any purchase or lease.

The result? An action request that American diplomats dealing with Turkey underscore the fact that “this is not the time for business as usual with Iran.”

But perhaps the scariest lesson in all this is that governments do in fact base aspects of their foreign policy on the recommendations of well-connected eggheads in the Ivory Tower. Discussing possible reasons why Turkey might want to draw closer to Tehran:

Turkey is pursuing closer relations with Iran for several mutually-reinforcing reasons. First, the underlying principle: According to a Turkish university professor who informally advises FM Davutoglu on Middle East issues (ref C), Turkey’s pursuit of close relations with Iran is a direct reflection of Davutoglu’s academic philosophy and influential 2000 book, “Strategic Depth,” in which he first articulated a policy of “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbors. Another Istanbul-based professor told us that Turkey’s Iran policy represents “a triumph of real-politik,” with Turkey’s national and regional interests trumping any discomfort that Turkey, as a multi-ethnic, pluralistic democracy, might feel about the Iranian regime’s harsh domestic authoritarianism. This contact described Davutoglu as “Turkey’s Kissinger.”

Zero problems, eh? Hardly.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.