Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Parsing Iran's threat to Turkey

Iran's threat to bomb a NATO radar site in Turkey, in case of an attack by Israel or the US, doesn't seem to have gathered as much press attention as you might expect. Iranian rhetoric to "deal a firm blow" against Israel and the US - or even Gulf Arab allies - is one thing, but for a senior Revolutionary Guards official to threaten an attack on Turkish soil is a serious change in tone.

And yet the Turkish government has made no official response, which is rather surprising given Prime Minister Erdoğan's speedy and vocal denunciations of anyone else who would threaten Turkey's interests. According to columnist Lale Kemal, there are splits emerging within the Cabinet over Iran:
Some ministers, such as Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yıldız, reportedly ran out of patience during a Cabinet meeting where he complained about Iran, accusing the country of being unappreciative of Turkey’s gestures, and criticized [Foreign Minister] Davutoğlu over his handling of Iran. 
Such splits have yet to be made public (unsurprising, given the tight rein which the PM tends to keep his ministers on). Nonetheless such an open threat to Turkey - even if it was, in theory, directed at Washington and Tel Aviv - is surely causing concern in the establishment, particularly in the military.

The warning comes bundled up with the decline in Turkish-Iranian relations over Syria. It is, depending on your point of view, either a coded and specific warning to Ankara to stop backing the Syrian opposition, or a sign of general frustration with Turkey and part of a gradual return to perceiving Turkey as a threat (largely due to its decision to host NATO's missile shield).

Ankara's official silence on the matter suggests one of two things, again depending on your viewpoint. Firstly, that Turkey doesn't take the threat seriously in the slightest, and refuses to bother responding to a message which was intended for domestic consumption. Secondly, that the threat is being taken very seriously, and that alarm bells are ringing in Ankara as officials scramble to defuse tensions.

It's not an easy one to read, but it may mark something of a sea-change in relations.

UPDATE: Ankara has sent a formal protest note to Tehran in response to the threat, whilst Davutoğlu has expressed “unease” to his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi, who said that the statement did not reflect official Iranian policy. A fairly mild reaction from Turkey, it must be said.

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