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US vies for Turkey missile defense contract

As major powers bid to supply Turkey with missile defense, others question Ankara's motives.

Turkish army tanks roll past a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, during a military parade on the 86th anniversary of Victory Day in Ankara, Aug. 30, 2008. (Fatih Saribas/Reuters)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — American, Russian and Chinese companies vying to sell Turkey high-altitude anti-missile air defense systems will have to submit their best offers by Tuesday if they want a shot at this billion-dollar contract.

The program — Turkey’s first long-range missile defense system — is meant to protect the country from potential ground-to-ground ballistic missile strikes, but the controversial purchase is raising questions about whom Ankara sees as a threat.

Two U.S. companies, the Patriot’s manufacturer Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, as well as Russia’s Rosoboronexport and China’s CPMIEC, have been invited to submit bids in the tender, which has already come under fire from critics questioning Ankara's motives for the costly purchase.

In a move to bolster its only NATO ally that borders Iran, the Pentagon has made it clear that it is ready to sell Turkey a Patriot anti-missile system worth $7.8 billion, which would be the largest single Turkish purchase of military equipment to date. The Turkish military, however, has said that its purchase won’t exceed the more modest $1 billion mark.

Amid ongoing tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program it’s easy to understand Washington’s interest in stationing a missile system in a country bordering Iran. Here in Turkey, however, many are questioning why their country is making this decision at a time when it has vastly improved its once fragile ties with its eastern neighbor.

A month ago Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made waves by calling Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a friend and accusing the West of treating Iran unfairly. If Israel is allowed nuclear weapons, he insinuated, why not Iran? Turkey was also the first country to congratulate Ahmedinejad on his re-election in June — a bold move considering the protests that were happening at the time.

Positive words aside, a nuclear-armed Iran would be alarming for Turkey and could upset the balance of power in the region.

“It’s clearly not in Turkey’s interest to see a nuclear Iran; they don’t want to see a nuclear-armed competitor on their border,” said Ian Lesser, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “But they do fear that this can happen. And modernizing Turkey’s air defense system looks pretty important from that perspective.”

Ankara denies that its defense plans are aimed at Iran.

"It is wrong to draw links between the Patriot and Iran," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told CNN Turk last month. "We neither have a perception of threat from any of the neighboring countries, nor have any military- or security-related preparation against them."