ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s vote against increased U.N. sanctions on Iran signals a shift in the Muslim NATO country away from the West toward a more self-centered foreign policy — to the dismay of ally the United States.
Turkey, which long touted itself as a bridge between the European Union and the Middle East but is now losing hope of admission to the EU, is bolstering ties with Muslim neighbors, raising some Western concern of a Turkish tilt toward the East.
The United States regards Turkey as a pivotal ally in the Middle East, straddling the divide between the West and East.
So Washington was unsettled when Turkey, along with Brazil, announced a deal last month to ease a nuclear standoff between Iran and Western powers, and then almost severed ties with Israel after an Israeli commando raid on a Turkish aid ship.
Turkey, a formally secular, democratic and rising regional power with a fast growing economy and the second largest army in NATO, says it is not turning its back on the West.
But in the biggest departure yet from what U.S. President Barack Obama has termed “a model partnership,” Turkey joined Brazil Wednesday as the only two of 15 member states in the U.N. Security Council to vote against tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program drafted by U.S.-led big powers.
“Turkey is now pursuing one policy, and that policy is to be Turkey,” said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“The whole point of Turkish policy is not to align itself with anybody, but to make Turkey more powerful in the world.”
Voicing fears in the West of losing Turkey, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Ankara was in danger of lurching eastward because of resistance in Europe to its EU accession.
“I personally think that if there is anything to the notion that Turkey is, if you will, moving eastward, it is, in my view, in no small part because it was pushed, and pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought,” Gates told reporters in London.
“We have to think long and hard about why these developments in Turkey (are occurring) and what we might be able to do to counter them and make the stronger linkages with the West more apparently of interest and value to Turkey’s leaders.”
Although EU accession negotiations have stalled, Europe remains by far Turkey’s largest export market and accounts for almost 90 percent of foreign investment in the country.
Moreover, by having one foot in Europe and one in Asia, Turkey is attractive to markets in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. So putting more distance between itself and the West could be costly for Turkey.
Ankara insists it is simply finding a new footing in its troubled Middle East backyard, forging trade and political agreements in a region with which it shares cultural and historic ties dating back to the days of the Ottoman Empire.
“Turkey happens to live in this region and has to deal with the problems of the region,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
“The Americans and the Europeans keep telling the world that only the West can fix the problems.”
Turkish Prime Tayyip Erdogan, whose government has cultivated close relations with Iran, described the imposition of sanctions as a “mistake” and that he intended to continue engaging Tehran over its nuclear program.
An aide to the prime minister said Erdogan spoke to Obama and Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin before the vote to tell them Turkey would not abandon diplomacy.
“That’s why we signed a deal in Tehran,” the aide said, referring to the nuclear fuel swap deal brokered with Brazil.
Nor was Turkey ready to betray a trust.
“We have to stand behind our signature. Otherwise we would have contradicted ourselves. That is why Turkey voted ‘no’.”
Washington and Turkey have attached great importance to their strategic relationship.
But analysts say Turkey’s increasing assertiveness, which has coincided with a more overtly Muslim identity since the AK Party took power, is complicating U.S. policies in the region — as was the case when Turkey’s parliament in 2003 rejected a motion to allow allied troops to invade Iraq from Turkish soil.
“Turkey’s change in foreign policy has been so fast that it has been difficult for some capitals to adjust but Washington will learn how to live with Turkey,” said Steven Simon, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Non-Arab Turkey has long avoided getting embroiled in the Middle East quagmire. But Erdogan’s willingness to confront Israel after marines raided a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza has turned Turkey into a leading light of Middle East politics.
His demands that Israel lift a blockade of 1.5 million Gaza Palestinians have earned him hero status among many Arabs and more religious and nationalist voters at home.
Still, analysts say that Erdogan risks involving Turkey too deeply in an Arab-Israeli conflict that it cannot solve and alienating pro-Western Arab governments.
“Turkey wants to be the big boy in the Middle East block, but eventually it with clash with Iranian ambitions and Arab ambitions,” Barkey said.
Ankara, Damascus and Tehran have found common cause against Israel. But historical rivalries between Turks, Arabs and Persians and realpolitik suggests Erdogan will be pushed back.
“Erdogan is not an Arab. He is a Turk,” Barkey said. “At the end of the day the Middle East conflict is about Israel and the Arabs.”
Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Jon Hemming; Editing by Mark Heinrich