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Turkey: Analysis From Washington--Testing Anti-Terrorism Policy

Washington, August 13 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's decision to sign a trade agreement with Iran puts Ankara on a collision course with Washington, one likely to have enormous consequences for Turkey, the United States and countries far beyond the Middle East.

For Turkey, the consequences of such a clash are very large. On the one hand, this decision puts pressure on Ankara's relations with Washington and NATO. As the U.S. State Department said Monday, Turkey's accord with Iran "sends the wrong message" because Iran is supporting terrorism, seeking to build nuclear weapons, and opposing the Middle East peace process.

On the other hand, Ankara's latest deal may allow Turkey to expand its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus because cooperation with Iran gives it a bridge to the region. Further, it may win Turkey greater influence throughout the Middle East, possibly making it rather than Iran the chief motive force there.

Moreover, and perhaps especially important for the politicians in Ankara, the deal with Iran -- if the United States. does not impose sanctions -- may have the effect of generating additional popular support for the new conservative Islamic government there.

For the United States, the consequences of the Turkish challenge are even greater. If Washington moves to impose sanctions on Turkey, as a recent American anti-terrorism law would seem to require, that would at a minimum infuriate the Turks and possibly lead to new tensions within NATO. More important, it could set the stage for the imposition of American sanctions on other countries.

If, on the other hand, the United States fails to impose sanctions against Ankara, in order to avoid a problem with a traditional ally, many European states and Japan -- who also oppose the American sanctions law -- would decide to ignore the American legislation as well. And that in turn could lead the Iranians to claim victory, arguing that Washington has failed in its efforts to isolate Tehran.

Because of the importance of these bilateral relationships for the entire international community, the consequences of Turkey's decision will likely spread to other parts of the world.

In the Islamic world and particularly the Arab Middle East, Turkey's choice could boost the influence of Iran and simultaneously reduce that of the United States, a shift that could destabilize some countries in the region and put the peace process at risk.

Further afield, in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Turkey's influence might actually expand but in a new form, one not hostile to Iran as the United States has always hoped but rather together with Iran's. That in turn could increase the independence of these countries relative to Russia but also make them less sympathetic to the secular West.

And finally, and especially if the United States does not impose sanctions on Turkey, Washington's leverage on Moscow to block any further Russian sales of nuclear equipment to Iran would also decline. As a result, the Russian government's efforts to expand ties with Iran would only increase, particularly if Moscow felt that it must limit outside influence on and access for the new states of Central Asia.

Because the consequences of the United States imposing or not imposing sanctions on Turkey are so great, the likelihood is that both Washington and Ankara will try to find a diplomatic way to suggest that the latest Turkish actions do not cross the line drawn by the American sanctions regime.

But that may be especially difficult to do because the United States is in the middle of a presidential election campaign, one in which any supposed weakness in opposing Iran might be exploited by one candidate or another.

The possibility that Washington is looking to avoid a direct collision was in fact suggested by the State Department spokesman when he indicated that Washington "hoped" the Turkish action did not violate the U.S. legislation and "hoped" that there would be no need for steps that would hurt the Turkish-American relationship.

Whether these hopes will prove to be justified remains to be seen, but one thing is very sure: a large number of people far beyond the borders of Turkey and the United States have a stake in the outcome.