ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey’s prime minister has signaled he is open to participating in U.S.-led plans for a NATO missile defense shield but only if Ankara is given significant control over the project, Turkish media reported.
NATO states are expected to agree at a summit this week in Lisbon to extend protection of NATO armed forces from missile attack to cover alliance territory by linking existing national systems to U.S. radars and interceptors, NATO officials say.
The United States plans to install elements of its system in Poland, Romania and possibly Turkey, although Turkey has yet to decide whether to be a host.
“The issue is who will have its command,” Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying in Turkish media on Tuesday.
“It should definitely be given to us, especially if it is a plan within our borders, covering our land. Otherwise it is impossible to accept such a thing.”
Erdogan gave no further details, but Turkish media interpreted his remarks as suggesting Turkey wanted to keep control over any part of the shield on Turkish territory.
NATO officials have said the system is intended to counter ballistic threats from the Middle East, in particular Iran, with which Turkey has established closer ties in recent years.
However, given Turkish objections to singling out states such as Iran as threats, NATO has stopped referring specifically to Tehran when explaining the need for the system, and the Lisbon summit is not expected to name individual countries.
NATO diplomats said they expect an agreement in principle to extend the missile defense system to be reached at the summit on Friday and Saturday, with details of command and control and geographic location to be worked out in the future.
They said expectations were that the shield would be operated through NATO’s existing command structure in tandem with national commands, as is already the case with air defense.
“We haven’t decided exactly how this is going to work, but I don’t see there being difficulty with the NATO command and control working alongside national command and control,” one diplomat said.
The project would involve NATO leaders agreeing to invest 200 million euros ($273.5 million) over 10 years to link their existing missile defense capabilities with the U.S. system.
The Lisbon summit will be a test of Turkey’s conflicting allegiances and force it to find a way to satisfy allies in the West without alienating new partners to the East.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Monday Turkey did not view its decision as a choice between Iran or the United States but would take a stance based on its own views.
Frustrated at the slow progress of its membership talks with the European Union, and out of step with long time ally the United States on some key foreign policy issues, Turkey has charted an increasingly independent course.
Turkey is committed to NATO missions such as Afghanistan but is no longer the compliant partner it was in the Cold War; and its decision to vote against a U.N. sanctions resolution aimed at Iran’s nuclear program irked its Western allies.
Turkey is a key trading partner of major gas supplier Iran, and has become a friend of Syria. It also recently signed a “strategic partnership” with traditional foe Russia, which NATO plans to invite to join the missile defense system despite Moscow’s lingering reservations.
Reporting by Alexandra Hudson in Istanbul and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; editing by Noah Barkin and Ralph Boulton