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Turkey/Iran: Ankara And Tehran Continue To Disagree Over Israel

  • Charles Recknagel

Basic differences between Turkey and Iran over Ankara's relationship with Israel continue to create tensions between the two countries. In part 3 of a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports on the problem.

Prague, 31 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohsen Eminzade visited Turkey last week, the talks centered on how to ease political tensions between the two neighbors.

Turkey and Iran said they would strengthen cooperation on security issues, and Tehran is reported to have agreed to look into Ankara's charges that Islamic militants in Turkey get Iranian support. Other security issues on the agenda were Turkish concerns Iran provides bases for separatist Turkish-Kurds, and Iranian worries that Turkey supports political opponents of the Islamic regime.

But one regional security issue was conspicuously absent in the discussions. That is Turkey's growing relationship with Israel -- something to which Iran strongly objects. The issue is so divisive that both sides may have considered it too volatile to include on any agenda aimed at improving Turkish-Iranian ties.

Yet the two countries' differences over Israel are never far from their foreign policy concerns and are often the subject of bitter criticisms of Ankara by Tehran. The Islamic Republic does not recognize Israel and opposes the Mideast peace process. And it regularly attacks Turkey for signing a military cooperation accord with Israel four years ago. Part of that accord allows Israeli pilots to train over Turkish airspace, something Tehran says gives them an ability to rehearse for any operations against the Islamic Republic.

But, despite Tehran's criticisms, and similar ones from many Arab states, Turkey shows every sign of deepening its cooperation with Israel. That determination was underlined this week as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak paid his third visit to Turkey since taking office a year ago. The subjects of Barak's one-day visit on Monday ranged from the Israeli defense industry's interest in Turkish arms contracts to sale of Turkish water to drought-hit Israel.

Turkish analysts say Ankara has strong reasons for close ties to Israel and that these guarantee Turkey will only continue to ignore objections from Tehran in the future. Kemal Kirisci, a professor at Istanbul's Bogazici University. closely follows Turkish foreign policy. He says Ankara considers Israel to be an important trading partner and a valuable source of military technical expertise.

According to Kirisci, Ankara sees its relations with Israel as a way to win support in the U.S. Congress against groups which oppose military aid to Turkey on human rights or regional security grounds. He says Turkey became highly sensitive to opposition in the Congress when Ankara was denied a shipment of combat helicopters in the mid-1990s, at a time when it was fighting a war with Turkish-Kurd separatists in its southeast. The 15-year war, which subsided last year, sparked accusations of human rights abuses on all sides. Kirisci says:

"With the end of the [U.S.-Soviet] cold war the U.S. administration [began to come] under increasing congressional criticism and influence in respect to [U.S.] foreign policy toward Turkey. Some of that came from human rights circles, but a good part of it came from Armenian and Greek lobbies, and that reached a point of crisis in the mid-1990s when the U.S. [administration] could not deliver Super Cobras [combat helicopters] to the Turkish military and Turkey had to withdraw [from] the deal."

Kirisci says that Ankara later turned to Israel as a source for U.S. military technology removed from conditions attached by U.S. congressional opponents. And he says Turkey hoped closer ties with Israel also might win it support from U.S. lawmakers promoting Mideast peace.

Western diplomats in Ankara say that Turkey now believes its 1996 military cooperation accord with Israel has proved its worth. They also say the Turkish government is intent on broadening its cooperation in the economic sphere.

Turkey and Israel are discussing opportunities for Israel to provide technical expertise -- and possibly investments -- in Turkey's effort to irrigate vast tracts of land through the Southeast Anatolia Project. One subject under discussion is a joint Turkish-Israeli free-investment zone near the city of Gaziantep in eastern Turkey, with a proposal that its products get access to the U.S. market under advantageous terms.

Ankara is also eager to pursue water sales to Israel. One plan calls for transporting water by barge to Israel from the Manavgat river, which flows into the Mediterranean north of Cyprus.

Israel is reported to be interested in buying as much as 50,000 million liters of water a year -- equivalent to some seven percent of its drinking water. Turkey already has invested some $150 million into building a purification plant and filling station at the mouth of the Manavgat, which now stands ready for potential customers.

Such new trade deals would expand a commerce between Turkey and Israel which analysts already value at some $1 billion per year. Much of that trade involves Turkish consumer goods and food being exchanged for Israeli high-technology products.

But Turkish analysts say there are forces other than military and economic interests which draw the two countries together. Kirisci says that both sides see common values in the fact they are non-Arab countries in the Middle East, have strong ties to the West, and have democratic systems.

"For good and bad, both Turkey and Israel have democracies and have had them since the 1950s -- even if the Turkish one was interrupted on occasions. Which means that they are relatively open societies and much more open toward each other. [Elsewhere in the region] have been countries which have had totalitarian regimes or regimes very closed upon themselves, which has made it difficult [for Toukai] to develop relations with those countries."

That means that as long as Turkey and Israel are the only democracies in the Middle East, they are likely to share a special attraction to one another. It also suggests they will create even stronger bilateral ties in the future.