ISTANBUL, Turkey — Whether it's a topic of discussion or not, Iran will likely be the 300-pound gorilla in the room when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on Monday.
The two leaders — each renowned for his particular brand of straight talk — are seeking strengthened ties at a time when both have weighty domestic and foreign agendas: for Erdogan, diplomatic engagement with Armenia and Iraq and Kurdish rights; and for Obama, deepening U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and ongoing concerns over Iran's nuclear program.
But the tenor of the meeting — the first one-on-one between the two leaders since Obama’s historic visit to Turkey this past April — is expected to reflect growing unease among U.S. officials with Turkey’s recent foreign diplomacy shifts, according to foreign policy analysts. For his part, Erdogan intends to tout his government's foreign policy activism and will be giving a series of speeches to Washington's foreign policy community.
“I’m a bit afraid that Erdogan is going to go into this meeting blindly, his shopping list of favors in hand, completely ignorant of the impression — right or wrong — that his recent actions have been giving many in the U.S.,” said Gareth Jenkins, a journalist, author and analyst based in Turkey.
Erdogan's coziness with Iran and Sudan, coupled with his harsh criticism of Israel, are feeding claims that Turkey is neglecting its tight U.S. alliance and abandoning the West in favor of a neo-Ottoman dominion in the East. Erdogan may be in Washington this week, but a month ago he was standing next to his “good friend” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran and defending Iran's nuclear program.
Erdogan will undoubtedly have a hard time explaining to Obama his reluctance to back new sanctions against Iran. Claims of brotherhood aside, Erdogan and Ahmadinejad are united in much more concrete terms by the great energy game. Turkey is set to invest $3.5 billion in Iran’s South Pars gas field, intended to ensure that Iran, as Turkey’s second biggest gas provider next to Russia, will have the ready supply to meet Turkey’s growing demand.
“The current government has a much more comfortable relationship with all of its Middle Eastern allies; they are as comfortable meeting in Tehran and Damascus as they are in Brussels and Washington,” said Ian Lesser, a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the Washington-based German Marshall Fund. “Iran, ultimately, will be the litmus test for Turkish-US ties.”
The Turks say they're seeking to become what Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu calls a “partner to solve the region's problems.” But other actions, such as Erdogan’s support of Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, claiming he couldn't possibly be guilty of genocide in Darfur because he's a “good Muslim,” have isolated many in Washington. Right now there are “more points of disagreement than of agreement” between Washington and Ankara, said Philip Gordon, Obama's point man on Turkey at the State Department.
Among the biggest worries has been the souring of ties with Israel, once Turkey's close ally, over the military offensive in Gaza earlier this year. Erdogan’s decision to bar Israel at the last minute from taking part in NATO military exercises in Turkey this October has only further disillusioned many Israelis over the future of this strategic partnership.
But experts say that despite differences, Turkey remains an invaluable U.S. ally as Washington confronts challenges in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and the Middle East.
"The American side does not seem to have the intention of rocking the boat in relations with Turkey because Turkey is too important," said Semih Idiz, a columnist for Milliyet newspaper.
The Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey is a supply hub for American troops and equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Turkey will likely be a key transit route as U.S. forces are drawn down.
Eyes have also fallen on Turkey, which is NATO's only Muslim member, since Obama announced on Tuesday he was sending 30,000 more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan. Turkey currently has 1,750 soldiers on Afghan soil, although their mandate is limited to strictly noncombat duties. The Islamist-inspired Justice and Development Party dislikes being asked to fight fellow Muslims and, while suggestions have been made that Turkey will increase its troop presence, it will likely be only for training and civilian-development duties.
U.S. ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey said Obama and Erdogan would discuss the issue, adding: "We're expecting flexibility on the definition of the mission Turkish troops will undertake. Every soldier in Afghanistan is a combat force."
In the 40 days since Obama and Erdogan were first set to meet — the initial date of Oct. 29 was moved out of respect for Turkish Republic Day — the climate has changed from a time of waiting to a time for action. From Obama’s announcement of America’s new strategy in Afghanistan to increasing pressure to apply sanctions on Iran, real decisions are being made with global implications.
For the two leaders, this may mean that their meeting has become significantly more difficult as they seek support from the other on positions that they have spent 40 days moving farther apart.