To say that U.S.-Turkish ties have seen better days would be a distinct understatement. Ever since the Turkish Parliament unexpectedly torpedoed American plans for a northern front against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in early 2003, relations between Washington and Ankara have gone from bad to worse. Lingering tensions over regional democratization, the political future of postwar Iraq and Kurdish empowerment have all conspired to keep the long-running U.S.-Turkish partnership on the rocks, with disastrous results.
"Turkish-American relations have been in a process of erosion for a long time," one leading Turkish analyst commented recently. "The strategic partnership is long over." But now, Turkey has the opportunity to change all that. As an international showdown over Iran's nuclear ambitions looms closer, Ankara's strategic choices hold the potential to dramatically improve its relations with Washington -- or to create a lasting chill in U.S.-Turkish ties.
For Turkey, the stakes could not be higher. Since the assumption of power by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in November 2002, Ankara has undergone a strategic about-face. Previously a staunch ally of the United States, it has steadily gravitated toward a new accommodation with traditional adversaries in the Middle East over the past two-and-a-half years.
Iran has been a chief beneficiary of these overtures, and economic, political and even military ties between Ankara and Tehran have expanded dramatically. The rapprochement formally culminated late last summer, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami signed a series of strategic accords -- including a landmark deal in which the two countries crafted a common approach to each other's main terrorist threats, the radical anti-Turkish Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) and the anti-Iranian Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK). READ MORE
But the Turkish-Iranian entente is anything but durable. During the early 1990s, Ankara and Tehran were locked in a monumental struggle for hearts and minds in the fledgling republics of the former Soviet Union. A decade later, the two countries continue to have profoundly different political visions for the "post-Soviet space." Turkey, poised to become a pivotal hub for energy from the Caspian Sea region, is also increasingly threatened by Iran's expanding regional maneuvers there.
The growing possibility of a nuclear Iran likewise constitutes a source of deep concern for Turkey. "You are not the only one threatened," Mr. Erdogan told President Moshe Katzav during his May 2005 visit to Israel. "So are we and the entire world." And, despite their recent tactical accommodation over the MEK and PKK, Tehran's enduring support for international terrorism means that sooner or later Iran and Turkey will find themselves on very different sides of the War on Terror.
So far, though, the United States has failed to capitalize on these considerations. Despite its commitment to democratization in the Middle East, Washington has not articulated serious plans to promote real pluralism in the "post-Soviet space" -- or the role that Ankara's deep ethnic and historical ties to the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia can and should play in such a project.
Policymakers in Ankara are now seeking to re-engage with Washington. In early June, Mr. Erdogan embarked upon a high-profile visit to the United States intended to mend frayed diplomatic ties with the White House. That very public charm offensive was mirrored by an even more significant strategic overture: the Turkish government's formal agreement to take on a leading role in the Proliferation Security Initiative, the Bush administration's highly-successful global counterproliferation partnership.
Turkey's participation marks a major step forward for the PSI, which U.S. policy planners are now seeking to adapt to more effectively counter Iran's expanding nuclear- and ballistic-missile capabilities. It also provides an inkling of Turkey's potential contributions to American strategy -- as a hedge against proliferation to and from Iran in the Eastern Mediterranean, and a counterweight to Iran's radical brand of political Islam in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
As Washington moves closer to confrontation with Tehran, Ankara's willingness to take on these roles will go a long way toward determining whether the Turkish-American strategic partnership is truly a thing of the past, or whether rumors of its demise turn out to have been greatly exaggerated.