Turkey's agreement with Iran to store low-enriched uranium in return for fuel rods for use in a medical research reactor suggests that Ankara is disillusioned with Europe and that Turkey's post-war partnership with the West may be coming to an end, writes Sinan Ülgen, chairman of the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) in Istanbul.
This commentary was authored by Sinan Ülgen of EDAM.
''Turkey has won little, if any, praise from others in the transatlantic alliance for brokering – along with Brazil – a deal that will see Iran ship 1,200 kilogrammes of low-enriched uranium to Turkey for storage in return for fuel rods for use in a medical research reactor.
At first glance, that reaction may seem churlish. After all, the deal made public on 17 May is very similar to one that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany offered Iran in October.
But the reaction in Western capitals to this major diplomatic coup for Ankara and Brasilia is understandable. Firstly, though the terms of the two deals are very similar, the six-month interval has fundamentally altered the expected pay-offs.
If Tehran had accepted the same terms in October, it would have had to part with nearly 80% of its low-enriched uranium (LEU), leaving it with too little uranium to manufacture a nuclear weapon.
Now, thanks to six extra months of its enrichment programme, Iran has almost twice the amount of LEU. It can now give up 1,200 kilogrammes of fissile material and still have enough for a nuclear bomb.
Secondly, the deal does not really address the core concern of the international community: Tehran has not committed itself to increase transparency about its nuclear programme or to halt enrichment.
More importantly, however, the timing of the trilateral deal is at odds with US-led efforts. A fragile consensus was being forged in the UN Security Council in favour of a new round of sanctions against Iran; what Ankara and Brasilia have done is to considerably weaken the rationale of and the campaign for sanctions.
That, in turn, stokes fears that Iran will continue to resist any other deal that would address the more troubling aspects of its nuclear programme.
Why has Turkey taken the risk of allowing Iran the benefit of doubt and, thereby, of pitting itself against its traditional allies?
This is more than a matter of aversion to new sanctions, though Turkish leaders have made clear their opposition. Ankara has long pleaded for more time for diplomatic engagement with Iran; it now has a result that can be seen as vindicating its strategy.
But there is another reason for this gamble on Turkey's part, one directly related to the EU.
The deal with Iran can be seen as testament to the fundamental changes in Turkish foreign policy introduced by the Justice and Development (AK) party. The new Turkey wants to be and is acting as a regional power with a global agenda. Its overarching vision is no longer one of Turkey as a country fully integrated with the West and instinctively aligned with the West.
The emerging understanding is that Turkey is a regional power and an agenda-setter, and that it can – and should – stand up to the West in pursuit of that role.
This shift in thinking is a consequence of a complex interplay of factors, ranging from the policy preferences of a ruling party that traces its roots to political Islam, through robust economic growth and to the emergence of new regional powers in the international system.
The greatest influence, though, is disillusionment with Europe. Ankara feels frustrated in its dealings with Brussels and believes that EU accession is becoming increasingly elusive, given the unresolved Cyprus dispute and continued questioning of Turkey's eligibility by EU leaders such as France's Nicolas Sarkozy. The euro zone's economic difficulties further undermine the EU's attractiveness.
As a result, the post-war partnership between Turkey and the West may be coming to an end. Devoid of the real prospect of EU membership, Turkey's priority is to establish its own role as a regional power, preferably but not necessarily with the support of the West.''