Turkey's government has been told that its relationship with the West could be seriously damaged if it rejects Nato's request to house part of a £165 million ballistic missile-defence shield that is being built to protect Europe from nuclear attack.
By Praveen Swami, Diplomatic Editor
Published: 9:00PM BST 29 Oct 2010
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state and Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, have held out the warning in behind-the-scenes talks with Turkish officials ahead of a Nato summit to be held in Lisbon on November 19, where a final decision is expected to be made on the missile-defence plan.
"Essentially we've told Turkey that missile-defence is an acid test of its commitment to the collective security arrangements it has with its western allies," a senior US official told The Daily Telegraph.
Nato's missile-defence programme is designed to protect Europe's population from nuclear-armed missiles the West fears Iran may acquire in coming years. The plans involve radar stations that can detect ballistic missile launches, and advanced interceptor missiles which can shoot them down.
Turkey is critical to the project, since its geographical location means radar sited on its soil will be able to detect Iranian ballistic missile launches early.
The November 19 deadline has left Recep Erdrogan, Turkey's Prime Minister, torn between his Islamist supporters and his country's western allies. Mr Erdrogan has made improving his country's relationship with Iran a central foreign policy. Turkey voted against a slew of new sanctions imposed by the United Nations on Iran this summer in an effort to slow down its nuclear programme.
"Sacrificing the Iranian friendship to Nato would mean an end to the independent foreign policy Turkey has followed in recent years, and the respect that that has earned it in the Islamic world, " ", Hakan Albayrak, an influential pro-government commentator, said.
Turkey has long sought EU membership a demanded supported by the UK, but resisted by Germany and France. Islamists in Turkey, angered by the rebuff, have been arguing their country's interests will be best served through new alliances with its eastern neighbours.
In this case, though, US diplomats believe western pressure is working. Turkey's military has already mapped locations for specialised radar which would detect ballistic missile launches in Iran. It is also considering acquiring the US-built Patriot PAC3 interceptor missile.
Even if Turkey does join the missile-defence shield, though, some experts question if it will actually make Europe safe. Theodore Postel and George Lewis, among the world's top authorities on missile defence, have warned that apparently-successful tests of interceptor missiles were conducted "in carefully orchestrated scenarios that have been designed to hide fundamental flaws".
In September, 2009, Barack Obama, the US President, had authorised a £3.15 billion plan provide missile-defence shields for troops deployed in war-zones. The decision reversed earlier plans to develop larger shields to defend the populations of entire territories. But early this year, an official US review concluded the technology meant to protect deployed troops was good enough to protect territories as well.
Yousaf Butt, a nuclear expert at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, has said this plan rests on unsound foundations. Dr. Butt argued that if Iran was "irrational and suicidal enough to discount the threat of massive nuclear retaliation then a missile defence system that can theoretically intercept only some of the attacking missiles most certainly isn't going to be a deterrent".