Interview
Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Washington, DC
June 10, 2010


QUESTION: What is the thinking about the vote which took place at the UN yesterday? It was an issue of key strategic interest for the United States, sanctions against Iran, and yet Turkey voted against the U.S. How upset are you?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, we’ve made no secret of the fact that we were disappointed with the Turkish vote. This was a critical issue for the United States. Many other key allies from all parts of the world came together to send a message to Iran that there are consequences for failing to abide by UN Security Council Resolutions. Turkey and Brazil chose not to support it, but we were pleased that so many countries did come together to give their support.

QUESTION: But it’s quite the turn-around, because people were once concerned about China and Russia not supporting these sanctions, and yet here you have a key U.S. ally going against what is a key strategic interest for you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think the China and Russia point is indeed important. If you go back six months or a year, as you say, there was a lot of skepticism that these countries would ever come around. Russia was very skeptical that sanctions could work; China is always concerned about interfering in other countries’ business; yet they came together because they, like us, saw that Iran was refusing to abide by UN Security Council Resolutions and accept the views of the international community that it needed to do something to reassure that it wasn’t pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

I think Turkey shares that goal. I believe that Turkey is sincere in wanting to work with the international community to prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program. They had a different view on sanctions and the Security Council Resolution. As I say, we were disappointed that they didn’t stand with the United States as a longstanding NATO ally that should share this goal. We were disappointed in that. We hope and expect that Turkey will abide by the resolutions as all other members of the UN are now required to do.

QUESTION: You were disappointed by Turkey’s vote. On the other hand, the Turks were to some extent stunned and shocked by your reaction to the deal that they reached with Iran. They felt there was an understanding about what would be a good deal. They felt they had a breakthrough. And yet you dismissed it and they felt betrayed.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, we didn’t dismiss it. And good friends and allies can have differences, and we have a difference with Turkey on this.

We have patiently explained not just to the Turks but to the world that we stand ready -- we want a diplomatic solution with Iran, and that’s why we and other members, other permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, came forward last October with a suggestion about a way Iran could reassure the international community that it wasn’t pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran agreed with that proposal, at least in principle, last October.

We have remained ready to pursue that course and give Iran the opportunity to reassure. For more than six months Iran failed to uphold its side of that agreement which was to transfer 1200 kilograms of LEU, low enriched uranium, out of the country; to meet with the international community of the P5+1 on the real concern which is its enrichment program which is in violation of five UN Security Council Resolutions. That’s the heart of the matter.

Turkey and Brazil continued to pursue what they thought would be reassurance from Iran, but we said from the start that the Tehran research reactor deal and the idea of 1200 kilograms out of Iran wasn’t the objective. It was a means to the objective, a means to reassurance, and we have made clear, including most specifically at the IAEA in Vienna yesterday, that there are real shortcomings with the Tehran declaration that Turkey and Brazil proposed along with Iran.

QUESTION: So why did they go ahead with it? To spite you?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I don’t think so. As I said, I think that Turkey is sincere in believing that starting with something rather than nothing -- I think they acknowledge that the Tehran declaration has a lot of shortcomings and doesn’t meet all of the objectives of the international community. So I think their objective is sincere, and we respect and acknowledge the very hard work that they have done in order to try to meet this goal. But we made perfectly clear that there are real shortcomings with that agreement. It doesn’t say anything -- last October when we suggested the 1200 kilograms of LEU out of Iran was a positive thing, Iran has been enriching uranium ever since then and as the IAEA reported last week, now has more than 2400. So if it ships out 1200 now it still has enough to make a bomb.

The Tehran declaration doesn’t say anything about Iran’s step to enrich LEU to 20 percent, which Iran says it is going to continue to do. There are real problems with the timetable and many other shortcomings that mean that the Tehran declaration doesn’t really satisfy the international community’s concerns.

QUESTION: On another issue which has also caused tension between the U.S. and Turkey, the Israeli raid against the Turkish ship. Leaving aside Israel’s own actions for a minute, what do you think of the role that Turkey played in this? Do you think they were looking for a provocation?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: You’re talking about “they” -- I believe that there were people on that ship who may well have been seeking a provocation to draw attention to this issue, draw attention to the blockade of Gaza and provoke something. But it’s not for me to determine that. We need to investigate this fully and really figure out what happened and that’s why the United States has been clear in calling for a prompt and credible and thorough impartial investigation so that we know exactly what happened out there.

QUESTION: What about the role of the Turkish government? This is a ship that, in a way you, could say they were responsible for.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: That’s not clear. Again, we need to figure this out. This was a private ship, it was an NGO that was organizing it. But I think there are a lot of unanswered questions. And before we reach real conclusions about what the consequences should be, the most important thing is to answer the type of question that you’re asking right now.

QUESTION: Turkey is at the moment riding a populist anti-Israel wave in the Arab world and internally as well. There are domestic political considerations at hand. How concerned are you by the deterioration of Turkish/Israeli relations? These used to be two allies. They used to have military exercises together, and they’re turning into enemies.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Indeed we are concerned about the deteriorating relationship between Turkey and Israel. One of the most promising things going on in the Middle East in the past decade or so was that relationship between the Jewish state and a large Muslim majority country. They had political ties, economic ties, tourism thriving between the two countries, security and military ties. And it really showed that this was possible. That has gradually deteriorated over the past couple of years, which is unfortunate, and even more unfortunate is this flotilla crisis which has really stimulated a lot of emotion and anger on both sides. Obviously we regret that. These are two of our most important friends and partners in that part of the world and that’s why we’ve been so active in trying to calm these tensions and bring the two countries together in a more constructive way.

QUESTION: What is happening to Turkey’s role and ambitions in the region? Yesterday we heard the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates say that Turkey was turning eastward, and it was because it had been rebuffed by the EU. Is that your reading?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, Turkey is no doubt playing a more active role in the region. That is obvious to anybody who pays even cursory attention to what is going on. Turkey is more active in the East, it’s more active in its region. I don’t think, though, that this is at the expense of the West, that this is somehow a choice, one or the other. Turkey has a very active foreign policy. It has long had ties to its neighboring countries and it is pursuing and developing those things which can be a good thing. Turkey can play an important role in regional diplomacy.

We certainly haven’t sensed any lessening of Turkey’s desire to have a strong relationship with the United States and a strong relationship with Europe.

QUESTION: But U.S./Turkish relations are changing a little bit. You used to be strategic partners, six decades of strategic partnership, and it looks as though you’re turning into strategic competitors in the Middle East particularly.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: No, I don’t think so. I think the United States and Turkey remain strategic partners. We have so many interests in common. We can have disagreements, and there are things we disagree on, not least the vote on Iran at the United Nations. Throughout that process we have been frank with each other about our differences. We’ve explained to them why we think it was important for countries to vote yes in the Iran resolution. They have explained to us why they think the Tehran declaration was something worth pursuing. And we’ve explained to them what we think the shortcomings are. That’s what friends and partners do.

QUESTION: So there’s no lasting damage to the relationship after the vote of the UN?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: We’re going to work very hard to preserve this partnership and cooperation. I think Americans will be looking to Turkey to explain why they think the right thing to do was not to join the other members of the Security Council in coming together to send Iran this very clear message that it needs to uphold previous UN Security Council Resolutions and deal with this problem. Turkey can explain that. But we’re going to continue to work with Turkey on a whole range of things.

QUESTION: Some people say that Turkey will probably be punished in some way or another. Will the administration, for example, support a bill in Congress now recognizing the killing of Armenians under Ottoman Rule as genocide? Or will you reconsider military ties with Turkey?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I don’t think we should be mixing up issues that don’t have anything to do with each other. We have a wide-ranging relationship with Turkey. We’ll be taking each issue appropriately, one at a time.

The overall relationship is inevitably affected by the way the countries see each other. That’s why we’re careful about that. We want to preserve a favorable image of Turkey in the United States. So I do think these things can spill over in unhelpful ways, but we’re determined to take advantage of the things, the interests, the many interests that we have in common.

QUESTION: But it’s not really the model partnership that President Obama spoke of last year. There is some competition there. It’s not just partnership.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I don’t think any partnership is ideal, without differences or problems. President Obama talked about pursuing a model partnership and the U.S. and Turkey really can do that, but Turkey and the United States have never been without their differences, and we have some important differences now, but we also have a lot in common that we’re working together on.

QUESTION: How worried are you about the trends inside Turkey? The sense that there’s a growing Islamist influence on the politics, and how that then determines their foreign policy agenda, particularly, for example, when it comes to relations with Israel?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: As we already discussed, the relationship with Israel is important to us. It’s good for the region. And were Turkey’s domestic orientation to take it in a different direction, that would be unfortunate.

But keep in mind, this government, people are talking as if there’s some fantastically new development here and suddenly Turkey is Islamist or oriented towards the East. This government has been in power since 2002 and it has maintained Turkish democracy. That is going to be the key moving forward, that Turkey continue to be a country where the rule of law and democracy is respected. Are there divisions in Turkey? Yes. Turks will have to sort through these divisions, secular/religious divide, balancing its relations between the West and the East. These are tremendous challenges. But if Turkey sticks with its commitment to the rule of law, its orientation and desire to join the European Union, and its democracy, then it can manage those balances.

QUESTION: A final question on this topic, would you disagree with people who say that Turkey is acting against America’s interests in the Middle East?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think that Turkey can help advance America’s agenda in the Middle East. There are --

QUESTION: But it isn’t at the moment.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: On certain questions it is, and certain questions it isn’t. It has helped facilitate talks between Israel and Syria. As a country that traditionally at least, or for years, has had good relations both with Israel and some important Arab actors, and Iran, Turkey can play a key role. And as a friend and partner of the United States, we welcome that and we encourage it. But each case will depend.

We never set as a blanket rule that everything Turkey does in the Middle East would be something we support, and there are times when we have differences with Turkey, and I suspect that it’s going to be that way for some time.

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[This is a mobile copy of Interview With Kim Ghattas of BBC TV]