Turkey's Silence On Iran Question

During the past week, the global press has enjoyed a multimedia feast over the comments about Iran made by France's Foreign Affairs Minister, Bernard Kouchner. While these remarks were subsequently tempered by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, this week's exchange nonetheless underscores the increasing weight that the Iran-question currently receives in diplomatic and political circles outside of Washington.

The press in Turkey has also been following this story quite closely, which is only natural for a country that borders on the pariah-nation in question. What has particularly puzzled this observer is the general absence of Turkey's political elite in the overall international dialog related to Iran and its potential development of nuclear weapons. While there does seem to have been discussion between Ankara and Washington concerning the Bush Administration's view that Turkey should freeze all trade with Iran, there has been little proactive commentary about the Iranian issue on the behalf of Ankara. Such relative silence on the part of
Erdoğan and Gül would seem to be misguided for two main reasons.

Even a limited military attack on Iran would most likely have disastrous effects on the relatively fragile Turkish economy. In addition to losing its direct trade with Iran, the Turkish economy depends on increasing future levels of foreign investment in order continue its positive growth trends during the coming years. Needless to say, investors will be very reluctant to sink meaningful amounts of capital into Turkey if Iran is launching missiles through Turkish airspace as a retaliatory measure.

Moreover, the Turkish economy has come to rely on the flow of natural gas from Iran during the past two decades. A military action against the country would clearly necessitate the cessation of this supply and force Turkey to further rely on Russia for its energy needs.

The second important concern related to Ankara's silence is related to how Turkey views itself as a regional player. The now cliche reference to Turkey functioning as Europe's bridge to the Middle East and Asia would suggest that Turkey is consistently active in the affairs of the region. While Iran and Turkey do have very clear religious and cultural differences, the current drama in Iran would seem to be a perfect opportunity for Turkey to show the world its ability to act as a regional facilitator.

Although this observer does not believe in the practical value of "Camp David-style" political summits, which are meant to reconcile the differences between two foes through a series of photo opportunities, it would seem that Turkey could gain incredibly valuable recognition by demonstrating its ability to play such a role.

Instead, it appears that Turkey is content to remain in the shadows of the West instead of embracing this looming disaster as a potential diplomatic extravaganza. Such opportunities are few and far between. Turkey's unwillingness to seize the initiative in this scenario ultimately communicates a rather petty self-image in regard to its involvement in the region.


Considering Turkey's Transport System

A recent article in Zaman about the state of Turkey's highway system encouraged this observer to consider the current and future state of transportation in the Republic of Turkey. Visitors to Turkey will no doubt remark the ease with which the individual traveler can move from one part of the country to another. Turkey's private bus, dolmuş and taxi network arguably represents one of the most formidable achievements of the Turkish experiment with capitalism. The not so uncommon image of a sheep strapped to the roof of a dolmuş minibus underscores the importance of this network to the development of the domestic economy over the past decades.

As is the case in all countries, the suitability of logistics network is one of the keys to economic growth. In its position as an emerging market economy, Turkey is faced with the typical challenge of upgrading its logistics infrastructure in order to meet the criteria of foreign investors. The aforementioned bus, dolmuş and
taxi network is not particularly relevant to the logistic needs of modern industry.

The challenge of strengthening a country's logistics infrastructure has traditionally fallen on the back of the public sector. More recently, there has been a growing liberalization of state control over strategic assets. A deluge of worldwide private investment has ensued. Turkey's ruling AK Party has embraced this trend, having already sold off significant portions of Turkey's infrastructure portfolio. Most recently the port of Izmir was sold to Hong Kong-based Hutchison-Whampoa for $1.25 billion. Similarly, Germany's Fraport bought the operating rights to Antalya's airport for $3.2 billion. Although such sales inevitably arouse suspicion concerning whether the government received fair value, the fact remains that these infrastructure assets are better off in private hands in terms of the future investment that they will receive.

While seeking suitors for its existing assets, Turkey's government has turned its attention toward the development of the country's road system. In line with the seaports and airports, the government is trying to sell the management rights to the country's existing toll-roads and toll-bridges. This strategy of selling toll-road concessions is the key to Turkey's ability to afford the creation of new highways across the country. The construction of a highway linking Gebze-Orhangazi-Bursa-İzmir is already underway, and another such project linking Ankara with Izmir will most likely begin in 2008. When the AK Party took power in 2002, it aimed to build 15,000 kilometers of new roads. Roughly 4,000 kilometers have already been completed.

Like public works projects all over the world, the AK Party's program is not without its inequities. For example, the number of roads built in the region of Kayseri (770km), which is a traditional stronghold of the AKP, is greater than any other part of the country by more than 100 kilometers.

Beyond this type of age-old political dilemma, there exists the broader question of whether the AK Party's emphasis on roads is in fact prudent. Istanbul's traffic is already horrific and the construction of a system of wider roads elsewhere will only cause this phenomenon to spread to other locales. In light of the rising costs of petroleum of which Turkey has nearly none, this observer wonders if is truly wise to concentrate so much of the country's infrastructure investment on motorized transportation.

As it turns out, Turkey has a very long, albeit largely unfruitful, history of train transportation. British military activity in Egypt and Iraq during WWI was largely motivated by an urgent need to stop Germany's ambition to build a rail connection between Berlin and Baghdad via Anatolia. A subsequent effort by Ataturk to expand the country's rail network was cut short by the leader's death.

Therefore, the majority of Turkey's contemporary railroad network was built at the beginning of the 19th century by German engineers, who were paid by the kilometer. As a result, Turkey's rail routes are far from direct. A cross-country train voyage is not only dangerous, but it also takes an eternity. This state of affairs exists in stark contrast to the modern Mercedes coach buses and trucks, which can complete the same journey in half the time and twice the comfort, safety and reliability.

If Turkey is to improve the competitive position of its economy in the future, it ought to pay more attention to the realities of today's world. European governments are aggressively investing in linking together their rail infrastructures since they realize the economic benefits this will add to their increasingly integrated economies. Even America, which boasts the world's most impressive highway network, relies on its railways for a great deal of freight transportation. Initiatives like the Trans-Asian Railway Network are the future and are highly complimentary to Turkey's desires to function as a gateway between Europe and Asia.

Developments such as fast-train service connecting Istanbul to Ankara (and eventually Ankara with Konya) as well as the recent announcement of the reconstruction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad in the near future are encouraging although insufficient. To meet Turkey's future economic ambitions, laying new and reliable track would not only benefit interior Anatolia's highly agrarian economy, but it will also encourage more dynamic industrial development.

The construction of more roads possesses the short term benefit of helping the country's growing automobile industry as well as the pockets of its bus company tycoons. However, this decision would appear to have unfortunate consequences for the Turkish economy's long term competitive position.


Fortress Turkey: Turkey - Iraq Security Wall

The Turkish newspaper Yeni Şafak, which is affiliated with the AK Parti, reported this week that the Turkish military plans to build a security fence that will span Turkey's border with northern Iraq. The planned fence, for which an anonymous source estimated a cost of $2.8 million, is meant to bolster Turkey's defenses against trans-border military activities sponsored by the PKK.

For additional information about the wall, please read the following article.

Throughout the spring and summer months of this year, the Turkish military has made much ado about a possible invasion of northern Iraq and most likely the Qandil region in particular. In terms of their rhetoric,
Büyükanıt and the rest of the military have taken a page from the "Bush Doctrine", arguing that the best defense is a good offense.

The building of a great Turkish security wall would be appear to be inconsistent with this philosophy. While the Israelis have consistently proven that the military usage of a wall does not restrict a military from frequent proactive or offensive operations, Turkey's wall will protect a much longer and less dense swath of territory. This observer wonders whether such a long fence will truly offer greater protection against PKK incursions originating from northern Iraq? Will security cameras and possibly even infrared equipment really tip the scales in favor of the Turkish military? If the Turkish military can't stop the PKK in the current environment of fluid trans-border movement, it seems unreasonable to think that a (seemingly inexpensive) $2.8 million fence will make much difference from a military standpoint.

Time will tell whether such talk concerning the creation of "Fortress Turkey" will indicate a shift in the Turkish approach to the PKK nuisance in northern Iraq. Talk of a Turkey invading northern Iraq will probably continue in the future, but the creation of a wall will certainly change the Turkish psyche
to a certain extent vis a vis the PKK .


Abdullah Gül's Upcoming Constitution Proposals: Looking at the Glass Half-Full

Now that the Turkish upper classes have returned from their sacred beach holidays and cool winds have at last prevailed on the torturous summer temperatures, Turkey watchers are settling in to observe what should prove to be a rather protracted debate. Turkey's man of the hour, Abdullah Gül, will drop his first bomb shell during the next few weeks. The country's secular elite is more than ready to sound the alarm while the ever enigmatic Turkish military bides its time in the shadows prepared to pounce at any moment.

The substance of this impending commotion will be directly related to Gül's plans to reform the Anayasa, which is Turkey's constitutional document. The spirit in which he plans on carrying out these reforms, as well as some of the particulars of his plan, has been neatly outlined an article from this weeks Economist.

Yet the 56-year-old former economist [Gül] hinted at a looser interpretation of Turkey's unique brand of secularism. Until now this has been defined by Ataturk's renunciation of Islamic symbols and rigid state control over all aspects of religious life. Secularism, said Mr Gul, was a precondition for “social peace” but also offered a model “for different lifestyles”. Some seized on his words as proof that he will support loosening restrictions on the headscarf and religious education.

As Mr Gul approved a new pro-EU cabinet this week, another clash loomed over a “civilian” constitution that Mr Erdogan proposes to adopt next year to replace the current text, written by the generals after their last coup in 1980. Draft clauses leaked to the media are nothing short of revolutionary: senior officers will no longer be immune from prosecution in civilian courts, military appeals courts will be scrapped, Kurdish will be taught as a second language in government schools and the definition of Turkishness will be expanded to embrace citizens from different backgrounds and creeds.
Almost all of the issues above strike at the heart of the national psyche and generally define the way any given Turkish citizen perceives their country. The idea of "social peace for different lifestyles" , whether they be ethnic or religious, is an extremely sensitive one. Particularly among pro-secular and prosperous segments of society, there exists a very strong conviction that there is a single secular, Turkish model by which all citizens of Turkey should abide. When the point is made that certain segments of the country's society, such as the Kurds, might have a different orientation toward "their country", a commonly heard refrain is that, "We are all Turkish people and there is no reason why we shouldn't live together in harmony."

From the perspective of this observer,
the idea of Gül's initiative to achieve legal tolerance for other lifestyles is extremely attractive in theory. Particularly in the realms of education and freedom for cultural expression (including language), there are many segments of Turkey's population, which are explicitly denied the types of opportunities that one takes for granted in Western Europe. Indeed, one could argue that if these segments of the population, which exercise alternative lifestyles or cultures, were not the victims of a political agenda, they would cease to represent such debilitating political issues.

For example, less than a decade ago it was legally forbidden to speak the Kurdish language in public. Did not the easing of this restriction help relations between Turkey and its largest ethnic minority? Would not the continuation of this trend as proposed by
Gül further augment the level of content felt by Turkey's Kurds?

Similarly, scholars have often wondered whether there is a correlation between the traditional campaign waged by the Turkish government against head scarves and the increasing numbers of Turkish women, who choose to wear head scarves as a political statement. Perhaps an easing on this issue would actually diminish the use of the head scarf as a political issue over the longer term.

These would all be positive developments if it is indeed the case that
Abdullah Gül's true intention is to make Turkey a more tolerant of its multiple cultures or "lifestyles". However, it remains to be seen whether his real agenda is in fact religious in nature; a near-term goal to make Ataturk's secular nation more tolerant of other persuasions in order to fulfill a long-term goal of becoming the next Iran.

Whatever the intentions of
Turkey's new president, it is the sincere hope of this observer that the Turkish military gives Gül the benefit of the doubt in the near-term at the very least. Anything short of such restraint by the military would make a further mockery of the institution of democracy in Turkey.