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Dispatch: U.S. Defense Secretary Visits Turkey

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Middle East Analyst Reva Bhalla examines the Iranian and Russian reactions to growing U.S.-Turkish strategic ties.
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U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will be traveling to Turkey Thursday for a high-profile visit to showcase a growing U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership. The United States has every reason to display its strategic alliance with Turkey, but with Russia and Iran watching closely, Turkey still has a very complex balancing act to maintain.

Panetta's visit to Turkey comes just two weeks before a U.S. radar system is scheduled to be installed in eastern Turkey as part of the U.S.-led ballistic missile defense shield. The meetings are also expected to cover a $111 million deal between Ankara and Washington for U.S. drones that would be transferred from Iraq to Turkey as well as the U.S. sale of three AH-1 Super Cobra helicopters to Turkey. These are all items that Turkey has long been requesting from the U.S. to show its support in Turkey's fight against the Kurdish militant group, the PKK.

There are a lot of reasons why the United States is paying more attention to Turkey these days. The U.S. will next week complete its withdrawal from Iraq, leaving behind a power vacuum for Iran to rapidly fill and use to project influence in the wider region. Turkey, a Sunni, non-Arab country with deep economic, military and political reach in the Middle East, is the natural geopolitical counterweight to Iran in the U.S.'s absence. Mesopotamia, lying between these two powers, is where you can expect to see Iranian-Turkish competition at its fiercest. Though Iran undoubtedly has the strongest foreign hand in Iraq these days, Turkey has been outpacing Iran in building up its intelligence, military and economic assets in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.

But the most obvious illustration of growing Turkish-Iranian competition can be seen in Syria, where Turkey has very publicly thrown its support behind the Syrian opposition, to the point of hosting Free Syrian Army defectors who are using their Turkish refuge to try and organize an insurgency against the regime in Syria. Turkey, like the United States, Saudi Arabia and others in the region, see the regime crisis in Syria as the best possible way to cut through Iran's Shiite arc of influence. Turkey's moves have greatly unnerved Iran, which much preferred the days when Turkey attempted to be more of an honest broker between the U.S. and Iran and took care to avoid confrontation with its Persian neighbor. This is why the head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps recently went so far as to directly threaten an attack on NATO's missile defense installations on Turkish soil if the U.S. or Israel attacked the Islamic Republic. That was a warning that definitely caught Turkey's attention, but has not prevented Turkey from following through in its BMD dealings with the United States.

Another key regional power eyeing Panetta's visit to Turkey is Russia. Russia has already been escalating its protest against U.S. BMD plans in Central Europe in recent weeks, and even threatened to cut off a vital U.S. supply line to Afghanistan if Washington doesn't reconsider its BMD plans. Russia is not happy with the thought of Turkey aligning itself more closely with the United States on such a strategic defense matter. The BMD installations themselves are not what's important — what Russia cares about is the fact that the U.S. military is using the BMD shield to enlarge its military footprint in the former Soviet periphery with the ultimate aim of placing a check on Russian power. The Russians, however, do not want to provoke a confrontation with the Turks at this time. The last thing Russia wants is to give Turkey a reason to interfere in Russian designs in areas, like the Caucasus and the Black Sea, where Russian and Turkish influence overlap.

Turkey, highly conscious of its energy dependency on Russia and wary of inviting Iranian proxy attacks on Turkish soil, is not looking necessarily for a collision with Moscow or Tehran over BMD. At the same time, these three powers are operating in an extremely unique geopolitical environment in which all three regional powers — Turkey, Iran and Russia — are rising, while the global hegemon, the United States, is off balance. The growing Turkish-U.S. strategic relationship makes a great deal of sense in this context, but with that comes greater friction between Turkey and its historical regional rivals.

Turkey's Re-Emergence Timeline

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