Friday, April 16, 2010
By convening one of the largest international summits Washington, D.C., has ever seen, U.S. President Barack Obama proved that he could be a leader. By all measures, he had not proved to be one before.
The apparent success of the International Nuclear Security Summit was, however, due by and large to its uncontroversial targets. The goals of the summit were basically to prevent a terrorist group or groups from gaining access to nuclear weapons. So dozens of countries’ legal administrations signed the communiqué at the summit, without much disagreement.
I was at the convention center to follow the summit, without knowing how much the meetings would be restricted. None of the bilateral meetings that took place on the sidelines of the summit had a segment for a quick Q and A. Everyone ended up being thankful for whatever they could squeeze out of the diplomats from the participating countries.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s meetings with Armenian President Serge Sarkisian and U.S. President Obama were likewise heavily restricted; there was very little information available on the meetings through some diplomatic sources and the White House readouts.
Among more than a dozen of the readouts on Obama’s bilateral meetings, only the readout on the Obama-Erdoğan meeting sent from the White House attached a picture; Obama is seen with a dead-serious face as opposed to Erdoğan’s smiling posture.
The Turkish delegation was in Washington for the nuclear security summit, but the sideline meetings with Sarkisian, Obama, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian weighted the visit. The Turkish-Armenian normalization process, in addition to Iran’s nuclear program as well as the partly strained U.S.-Turkey relationship following the “genocide” row in early March, were the main issues discussed.
By Tuesday, Erdoğan made it clear through media interviews and statements that Turkey opposes the sanctions against Iran at this time. And by Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu also declared, following my question during a press conference before he departed for Brazil, that Turkey does not have a deadline for the talks with Iran.
“One of the most dangerous things in a process like this is to give a deadline. It is not the right course of action,” Davutoğlu said. “If one wants to manage the psychology of the process, one must avoid deadlines. Therefore, we do not say that this should happen at this time, and that should happen at that time."
Turkey does not see itself bound to the American deadline, which has been repeatedly stated as the “end of this spring” – though it is not clear that the spring deadline would be attainable by the U.S. administration anyway.
According to some good sources in Washington, Saudi Arabian officials have already been shown the “sanctions package” that Davutoğlu reproachfully stated, in a speech in the U.S. capital, that the Turkish administration has not yet been shown, even though his country sits on the United Nations Security Council.
According to one important source in Washington, the Saudis asked the Americans to bring the sanctions to the Security Council after May, when the Lebanese government will finish its chairmanship of the council. It is well known that Lebanon, along with Turkey and Brazil, likely will say “no” if a vote is held on sanctions against Iran.
Ian Lesser, a well-known Turkey expert at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, said the meetings between Obama and Erdoğan “have not produced much in terms of the bilateral relationship.” Lesser added that “there is a stark difference when it comes to the view of the utility of the sanctions on the parts of the two governments.” And he hinted that it will be an interesting journey to watch when or if the sanctions reach the U.N. Security Council and to see how the positions will be taken.
One of the of the most visible foreign affairs deputies from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, told me within the last couple of months that “at the end of the day, Turkey will take the side of the West against Iran, if the voting day comes to the Security Council.”
During the last week, the leadership of the AKP displayed its decisiveness, in terms of being in the opposition against the position that favors sanctions, by making some strong economical points as well as other political ones.
It must be noted: Obama still has not ruled out the diplomatic solution, including the one that is currently being developed and was briefly discussed by the U.S., Brazilian and Turkish leaders during the summit. However, the U.S. is not as patient as the Turkish administration would like it to be.
The Israeli lobby in the U.S. Congress, with a letter signed by three-quarters of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, urging the Obama administration to stand with U.S. ally Israel, is pressing hard to change Obama’s position in regard to Israel.
It is not only from Congress that Obama is receiving heavy pressure; in the international arena, the Germans and the French have been more aggressive lately in pursuit of heavier and faster sanctions against Iran. Just as Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley stated last Wednesday during a press conference, the U.S. administration thinks it has already spent more than a year trying to find a diplomatic solution for the Iranian problem and nothing is moving “behind the curtain.” Now it seems Turkey is where America was a year ago.
The climate in Washington says that unless Turkey and other countries that want to work more on a diplomatic solution find that hidden diplomatic solution sometime soon, the U.S. and Turkey might have a clash over bigger problems than they do today.
There is, of course, always the Russian and Chinese opposition and it would require creative thinking on the part of the Obama administration to create such a magic solution that could both assure the Israelis enough so they will not attack Iran and assemble sanctions that are soft enough to cajole Russia and China into supporting them. It is a very a narrow line to walk.
The Turkish-Armenian track
On the Armenian-Turkish track, even though Turkey tried hard to give an impression in Washington that the normalization process is continuing, one needs to put in extra effort to see anything progressing for a while.
Both Erdoğan and Mr. Murat Mercan, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee at the Turkish Parliament, a committee in charge of the ratification of the protocols, have repeatedly ruled out any move unless there is a positive step on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
In response to this expectation, Armenian President Sarkisian, following the meeting with Erdoğan, went to visit Woodrow Wilson’s tomb in the National Cathedral and told members of the gathered Armenian representatives that: “Turkey cannot speak in the language of preconditions with Armenia and the people of Armenia. We simply will not allow it.”
Ross Vartian, the executive director of the U.S.-Armenian Public Affairs Committee, said “Armenia’s patience is not unlimited” with regard to the ratification of the protocols. And he recalled that both the Armenian and the U.S. view on the Karabakh issue are the same, and that view does not link the protocols with the Karabakh issue.
In the coming weeks, relations between the U.S. and Turkey will continue to be dominated by these two massive impasses.