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."
Others, like Mustafa Kibaroglu, an expert on nuclear non-proliferation issues at Bilkent University in Ankara, argue that Turkey will be judged on its actions, not its words.
“You cannot lift visa requirements for Syria and make supportive comments about Iran’s nuclear program, while at the same time deploying U.S. missile defense systems, which will be seen by them implicitly as a threat. That would be hypocrisy, and there is no room for hypocrisy in Turkish foreign policy.”
Turkey does have deep economic interests in Iran. Trade between the two countries hit $10 billion in 2008, compared to $1 billion in 2000. Iran supplies one-third of Turkey’s gas supply.
While plans to update Turkey’s defense systems have long been in the works, the announcement of the country's intention to purchase a missile-defense system coincided with the Obama administration’s decision to abandon a missile shield planned for Eastern Europe. That timing led to speculation over whether Ankara will play a role in the revamped U.S. missile-defense network.
The new U.S. approach to an anti-missile system envisions an initial reliance on a sea-based system deployed in the Mediterranean, with an additional shore-based network to follow.
For now there is no sure linkage between the Obama missile defense architecture and the plans by Turkey to acquire more sophisticated air defense systems, but experts say Ankara could benefit by being involved — especially if that involvement were couched within the NATO defense system.
“Turkey has been pursuing a zero-problem policy with our neighbors recently, and the issue of missile defense has many problems,” said Cem Birsay, an academic in the International Relations department at Isik University. “But if it became a joint-NATO policy that would somehow ease Turkey’s hand.’
Thus far Ankara has managed to avoid directly addressing the contradictions between its friendly relations with neighbors and purchasing missiles that may be seen as an inherent threat to Iran. But as bids for the defense system come in, it seems that Ankara’s time to perfect this balancing act may be running out.
“If the military stance gains more weight it could damage the political advances that have been made since recently. But in the long term, if military concerns are ignored it could be equally detrimental, because the Middle East is a very volatile region where regimes are not stable,” said Kibaroglu.
“This is the hot potato, being handed off from politicians to the military and back; apparently no one wants to make the final decision.”