Turkey's 60-year membership in NATO will undergo its toughest test this month when the country decides whether to allow a NATO antimissile shield to be based on its territory.
Analysts are casting the decision as a key moment in Ankara's foreign policy that could potentially determine whether Turkey remains within the Western orbit or decisively turns its gaze eastward, as some Western officials fear.
The United States has indicated that the defensive radar system is designed to protect NATO members against attack by Iran, whom Washington and many of its allies suspect of trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Turkey fears that hosting a shield explicitly aimed against its eastern neighbor could damage the burgeoning ties it has developed with Tehran.
Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister -- who has pursued a policy of "zero problems" with Turkey's neighbors -- insists Ankara does not view any of them, including Iran, as a threat. Earlier this year, Turkey opposed a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions imposed against Iran over its uranium-enrichment program and instead sponsored an ultimately unsuccessful attempted compromise that envisaged a nuclear fuel-swap deal with Iran.
However, Turkish officials are reluctant to reject the antimissile system out of hand lest it lead to a rupture in relations with NATO, which Turkey joined in 1952.
'This Is The Dilemma'
Huseyin Bilgi, professor of international relations at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, says the shield could force Turkey to choose between NATO membership and loyalty to Iran, which has become its second-biggest trading partner under the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu: "Out of the question."
"This is the dilemma. Turkey needs more security and this is only provided with NATO membership. Turkey should not and cannot leave NATO because of this program," Bilgi says. "If Turkey is not acting together with NATO, then the concerns in the West in general that Turkey is turning away from the West will be strengthened.
"And this is, I would say, an important test for the Turkish government to prove whether they are really in favor of staying in NATO and put NATO forward, or prefer not to do this and be on good terms with Iran."
In the face of such a stark choice, Turkish policymakers are urgently seeking a middle way that would enable them to accept the shield without offending their friends in Tehran.
Speaking in Shanghai on October 31, Davutoglu told reporters that it was "out of the question" for Turkey to oppose security measures considered essential by NATO. But he added: "We do not have a perception of threat in our adjacent areas, including Iran, Russia, Syria, and other adjacent countries. NATO should exclude any formula that confronts Turkey with a group of countries in its threat definitions and planning." 'Generic' Assessment
Turkish officials have indicated that they may agree to the shield as long as there is no explicit definition of the potential adversaries.
"The security assessment should be generic," a Turkish Foreign Ministry source, writing on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL in an e-mail. "It should not name any country, as the situation can change in time. Any threat to any member from any third party should be met by all members, so no need for name-calling."
The official also expressed misgivings that the system -- as currently designed -- failed to defend all of Turkey's territory. "The system if we agree to it should cover the whole area of Turkey," he wrote.
Sharpening Turkey's dilemma in the run-up to an expected decision at a forthcoming NATO summit in Lisbon on November 19-20 have been expressions of outright hostility from Tehran. The English-language "Tehran Times" quoted a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander, Brigadier General Said Masud Jazayeri, as describing the missile-defense shield as "part of an Iranophobia plot," while Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast called it "seriously suspicious."
At the same time, the AKP's reluctance to embrace it has created tensions with Turkey's military, which sees the system as essential and is more inclined to view Iran as a threat because of its nuclear program. "The Turkish government is at the moment very careful not to somehow give the picture or the image to Iran that Turkey is against Iran," Bagci says. "However, I know that the military partly is for the system. You never know what is going on. Iran is possessing certain missiles, like Shahab, which can reach any part of Turkey." Uneasy Compromise
The issue has triggered fierce debate within Turkey, with religious-conservative and pro-government media arguing that the shield would undermine the country's credibility in the Middle East and aspirations for an independent foreign policy.
However, Fadi Hakura, an associate fellow and Turkey specialist with the London-based Chatham House think tank, says the final decision is likely to be an uneasy compromise aimed at preserving Turkey's NATO membership while limiting damage to its relationship with Iran.
"My guess is that Turkey will try to find a face-saving formula to enable the missile-defense system to be established on its territory as a broad NATO commitment," Hakura says, "but at the same time try to give the impression that this does not target any of its neighbors, primarily Syria and Iran.
"Whatever decision Turkey takes will have inevitable consequences. If it approves the missile-defense system, it could undermine somewhat its relations with Iran. On the other hand, if it does not approve it could definitely undermine its relations with NATO and the Western allies in general. Nevertheless, I think Turkey can find the middle ground of accepting the missile-defense system while managing any fallout with Iran."