Turkey Tests America’s Forbearance on Sanctions Law

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Jonathan Clarke, a former member of the British diplomatic service, is with the Cato Institute in Washington

The Turkish press characterized the U.S. cruise missile strikes on Iraq as “President Clinton’s campaign fireworks.” The cynicism was a pointed commentary on the Clinton administration’s predilection for opportunistic symbolism.

Yet opportunism cuts both ways: Turkey itself is set to profit from the administration’s appetite for overreaching. Turkey has taken advantage of the confusion in northern Iraq to dispatch its air force against the Turkish Kurds. And the new Islamist government of Necmettin Erbakan cynically played its acquiescence to the continued use of its air bases for Operation Provide Comfort against its wish for U.S. acquiescence to Turkey’s new $23-billion natural gas deal with Iran.

The deal seems to flout the Alfonse D’Amato-inspired law punishing foreign investment in the energy sectors of Iran and Libya. The administration did not particularly like the bill, which it knew would lead to feuds with America’s allies and do little to modify either Iranian or Libyan support for terrorism. Nonetheless, the opportunity to don the stern mien of the anti-terrorist crusader was irresistible.


The administration thought it was working from a fail-safe script. It anticipated that the law’s most likely first victim would be a French oil company with long-standing Iranian connections. With France recently in Washington’s doghouse for alleged industrial espionage and generally perceived as an anti-American gadfly, sanctions would look like rough justice.

The game plan has misfired. Instead of an unlovely French corporate minnow, a much bigger fish in the shape of Turkey has swum into the net. Hardly was Clinton’s signature dry on the sanctions bill when Turkey’s new prime minister Erbakan chose Tehran as the venue of his first foreign visit. There he signed the 23-year contract under which Iran will supply natural gas to Turkey.

The coincidence of timing was bad enough. Even worse were some of the political atmospherics that accompanied the deal. During his visit to Tehran, Erbakan went beyond contractual matters. He spoke of his wish to make Turkey a less “one-dimensional” (that is, less pro-Western) country and to “initiate a new relationship with our Muslim brothers.” His Iranian hosts exulted that “Turkey is no longer a province of the U.S.”

What to do? Turkey is a NATO ally in a very volatile climate. The collapse of secular coalitions and the rise of the Islamic party have kept the government in turmoil for the past year. In their desperation for survival, political leaders appear to have lost all sense of the national good. The attempt to control the Kurds on the border with Iran, where the gas pipeline will pass, has drained the country politically and economically. Turkey’s budget deficit has soared 500% in one year. To deflect attention from these difficulties, Turkey has resorted to distressingly nationalist behavior, such as promulgating bizarre territorial claims against Greece and reacting with callous indifference to killings by Turkish troops in Cyprus.

Brooding in the background is the Turkish army. It is watching these developments with increasing disquiet. For the moment, the generals remain in their barracks, but military intervention could come at a moment’s notice.

In the face of these events, the Clinton administration has appeared frozen like a deer trapped in a car’s headlights. Its initial reaction was to claim that, while the Iran deal was unwelcome, it would not cause a rift in U.S.-Turkey relations. The rationale is that Turkey is simply too valuable an ally to allow a small matter like the sanctions law to get in the way. Indeed, an interagency legal committee has been formed to pronounce on whether the deal contravenes U.S. law. No doubt some whitewashing technicality will be found.


This resort to lawyerly hairsplitting is of a piece with the administration’s all-too-often displayed tactics when it finds itself in difficulty. But in foreign policy, the damage goes wider. In order for the administration’s assertions of leadership to be credible, foreigners must know that America’s words mean something.

Already, there is a worrying tendency among America’s allies to interpret Washington’s words and deeds not as expressions of national purpose but as mere ephemeral gestures driven by domestic politics. The ultimate result is that the U.S. isn’t taken seriously. Malaysia’s leader, Mahathir Mohamad, said as much last week. Malaysia’s state oil company also has signed a deal with Iran, and Mahathir promised that if Malaysia disagrees with the U.S., Malaysia will go its own way.

In San Diego, presidential nominee Bob Dole made the sound point that promises should not be made unless the intent is to keep them. In other words, politics is a test of character. Nowhere does this apply more than in foreign affairs, where credibility is the essence of effective behavior.

The case of Turkey and Iran presents just such a test. No one advocates rash, destabilizing action against Turkey. But if the administration backs away from its own freshly minted law, then it cannot complain if America’s voice is a little more diminished in world affairs.