Crises with America

Since 2010, Turkish-American relations have been colored by crises. In the period from 2013 to 2017  these crises took on an even more chronic nature. It seems that the discomfort felt by the US at Turkey’s politics led them to try and nip the problem in the bud with a coup d’etat.

Looking at Turkey’s attitude at the most significant events of the last sixteen years, it is possible to understand why the American administration wanted to get rid of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This period has witnessed the end of Turkey’s hierarchical relationship with the US that had been going on since the 1950s, and the lone superpower in the world did not want to accept the end of this patronage relationship. 

This has been the central tension that marked this period. The defining moments of this tension rising, sometimes leading to crisis, are as follows:

March 1st Vote: First tension with America

It wouldn’t be wrong to date the start of America’s discomfort with Tayyip Erdogan back in 2003. Erdogan himself wanted the March 1st motion to pass and he shared that stance with both the public and the parliament. The US had made a note of that, but the result was all the same. After all, the MPs who voted ‘No’ on the March 1st motion belonged to the AK Party, headed by Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey did not let America to use its territory during the occupation of Iraq. An AK Party MP we spoke to at the time called the rejection of the bill ‘Turkey’s new independence declaration.’ We know several ministers and leading AK Party officials voted No on it.

The March 1st bill was in a way a warning flare for future disagreements between the two countries. As Turkey moved towards a more autonomous line in its foreign policy, Washington’s ‘Erdogan problem’ grew bigger.

Throughout the US occupation in Iraq, the developments in that region remained a minefield for Turkish-American relations. As the US took positions that would damage Iraq’s territorial integrity and activate the ethnic and sectarian fault lines in the country, the situation would get even more tense.

2006 Khalid Meshal’s Ankara visit

When Turkey invited Palestinian leader Khalid Meshal, described by the US and Israel as a ‘terrorist,’ the American administration was not happy. Turkey saw Meshal as one of two most effective actors of the Palestinian issue. After winning the 2006 elections in Gaza, Hamas gained even more legitimacy in Turkey’s eyes. Turkey did not shy away from meeting with Meshal in Ankara.

2006 Turkey opposes US attempts to build “Sunni Block”

In 2006, Turkey blocked an American initiative that would jeopardize regional peace; an attempt to establish an anti-Iran front by bringing together majority-Sunni countries of the region led by the US and Saudi Arabia. In the region connecting Morocco to Pakistan, Sunni-majority countries Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, and Kuwait were being called on to unite against Iran.

Turkey refused to be part of this front. Moreover, Turkey advised the same to certain countries it had an influence over. Going in the opposite direction, it tired to open up dialogue channels between certain countries and Iran.

Ankara was one of the capitals that had a facilitating role in Iranian president visiting Saudi Arabia on March 4, 2007 following heavy traffic between Tehran and Riyadh.

In the end, America’s plans to build a “Sunni front” failed.

2009 The ‘One Minute’ Affair   

The crisis that went down in history as the ‘One Minute Affair’ was one of the clearest signs that Turkey had started to stand up to the global order.

At Davos, Erdogan had resisted attempts by American journalist David Ignatius to end the panel after the Israeli president’s remarks by saying “No, one minute!”

His words became part of the political lexicon.

When Erdogan told Shimon Peres “You know too well how to kill people” and an Israeli president was effectively scolded by a Turkish PM in front of the world painted the picture of a Turkey that didn’t bow down. Even though it all happened spontaneously, the “one minute” outburst was a message sent to the global order through Israel, and it said “I exist in this region with my own views.”

Considering its weight in certain centers of power including America, Israel is not just Israel. Specifically, the Jewish capital and the US-centered international media, which is a reflection of it, are controlled by Israel and structures related to it. Hence Turkey’s never since improved image in international media after the “one minute affair.”

Of course, this crisis wasn’t noted just by Israel, but by American officials on the Turkey desk in Washington.

2010 Turkey objects to embargo against Iran

In 2010, Turkey was a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

The negotiations that global actors carried out with Iran on nuclear energy and nuclear weapons were at a standstill. Through Mohamed ElBaradei, then president of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Turkey was asked to step in due to their good standing with Iran at the time. Together with Brazil, another non-permanent member on the Security Council, Turkey took certain initiatives on behalf of Tehran. 

Iran was persuaded to a formula that the US had said was acceptable for them. The Tehran Agreement had the potential to be a great relief for the world but then the American administration announced they had a new evaluation and did not accept the agreement which failed to meet their expectations.

The prediction was that Turkey and Brazil would fail to convince Iran, which would then create a stronger justification for the UN’s embargo decision. But that’s not what happened. Iran was persuaded, and they accepted the terms of the deal.

Suddenly the US found itself in a tough spot.

And yet they insisted on an embargo at the UN. Moreover, they wanted Turkey to support the decision.

Barack Obama had called Erdogan the night before, spoke about the special alliance relationship, and demanded that he supported the embargo. When he realized during the phone conversation that he would not be able to persuade Erdogan to vote yes, he asked that Ankara would at least abstain.

Erdogan said that he would consider it, but couldn’t make any promises.

The next day, Turkey voted “No” on the Iranian embargo resolution at the United Nations.

This was one of the key moments pointing towards an end of the patronage relationship.

Türkiye Refuses to Participate in the Embargo Against Iran


America did not stop at UN sanctions. They passed anti-Iranian sanctions through their own Congress, which said that all of Iran’s profits from oil sales would be considered “illegal.” Because according to the US, Iran used those in nuclear weapons production.

Turkey was ready to abide by UN embargos and did what was necessary, but they did not have to abide by decisions that the US took on its own, in its own congress, and they didn’t.

Every country follows its own interests. Turkey did just that when it facilitated Iranian-Indian trade through Halkbank and made billions of dollars

This meant that the US blockade on Iran was effectively by-passed. These attempts by Turkey caused real discomfort with the Obama administration. Many officials from the US Department of Energy and other offices came to Ankara, asking for gold trade with Iran to be halted.

Ankara rejected these demands.

American authorities arrested Mehmet Hakan Attila, the General Manager of Halkbank, the Turkish bank that facilitated trade with Iran, during his visit to the US. This issue remains one of the most significant elements of tension in Turkish-American relations.

2010 Israeli Attack on Mavi Marmara

Israel’s 2010 armed attack on Turkish ship Mavi Marmara in international waters was a case in which Turkey completely had the upper hand legally. But Turkey did not find the US on its side. Ignoring the circumstances and the legal aspect of the event, the US stood by Israel as it always had. It attempted to placate Turkey. Turkey rejected these efforts and decided to cut ties with Israel. Despite America’s pleas, it recalled diplomats, asking Israeli counterparts to leave the country. Turkey also filed for court cases against the Israeli Prime Minister and soldiers ordering the operation. This was one of the largest crises in the Middle East to happen during the Obama administration, who spent a lot of effort trying to decrease the tension between their two regional allies. Within three years, Israel officially apologized to Turkey for the attack as part of the process initiated by the US. 

In her memoir “Hard Choices,” which she wrote after leaving the State Department, Hillary Clinton said of Erdogan’s Turkey: “In my four years as secretary, Turkey proved to be an important and at times frustrating partner.”

Tensions over Nouri al-Maliki

In the years before the Syrian crisis, the biggest source of tension in Turkish-American relations was Iraq. What started with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 never really ended.

Turkey has taken many steps in Iraq that bothered America. One of these is supporting a political entity named Irakiye, or the Iraqi National Movement, in 2010. That was Turkey’s contribution to a mess created by the US and Iran in Iraq.

At a time when the US and Iran supported al-Maliki and wanted him to be prime minister after the elections, Ankara helped create Irakiye, an umbrella organization that brought together Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. Both Washington and Tehran were troubled by the fact that this group came out of the elections as the leading party, albeit with a little margin.

Iran was the center that Shia-majority parties looked to, while America played a decisive role as the occupying power in Iraq. That Turkey was able to influence the inter-Iraqi balance was a problem.

Why did Turkey take this action?

Because Nouri al-Maliki’s policies completely cast out Sunnis of Iraq in favor of the Iranian line. Today, the tension in Iraq along sectarian lines and the support enjoyed by radical Sunni groups have their roots in al-Maliki’s years-long policies.

This is the politician the US supported, while Turkey carried out a policy opposing him.

Even though Irakiye led election results, al-Maliki was still made prime minister, but both Washington and Tehran saw that Turkey would not completely give up the field to them.

2011: The Arab Spring                

Turkey and the US were on the opposite sides during the Arab Spring. Turkey supported the democratic demands of the Arab peoples going out on the streets, while the US initially kept an irresolute distance from the process before completely backing dictators. 

The Turkish prime minister supported the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, one of the biggest allies of the US and Israel in the Middle East, publicly calling on him to step down.

As discussed in the chapter on Egypt, the US on the other hand saw the regime in Egypt indispensable in terms of Israel’s security and other regional policies. While Ankara had hopes about alternative governments that could replace Mubarak, Tel Aviv and Washington were worried.

All the way to the end, Washington backed the status quo, while Ankara called for reform.

Tayyip Erdogan unequivocally opposed the military coup in Egypt. When he said “Israel is behind the coup and we have the proof” at an August 2013 party congress, the White House condemned his statement.

 After the coup, Barack Obama saw no issue with sharing a dinner table with the Egyptian dictator who was in the US for UN meetings, while Erdogan protested the same dinner.

2013: Negotiating missile defense systems with China

Turkey owns no missile defense systems despite being surrounded with countries who have long-range missiles capable of hitting Istanbul and Ankara.[1] The state finally woke up to this fact and started negotiations with a group of producers, with American and European companies among them. When the result of these negotiations were announced by the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries in September 2013, it became apparent that the company that had made the most suitable offer was CPMEIC of China. The government announced that they would start the talks with this company, as they had made the best offer in terms both price and technology transfer. While the Chinese company offered to build the system for 3.4 billion dollars, the closest second offer was 4.4 billion dollars from EUROSAM.

Washington was disturbed by the news that Turkey would be getting such high level military technology from China, rather than the US or Europe.

Moreover, the Chinese company that would supply Turkey with the missile defense system was among the companies on the American embargo list since 2003. As expected, the justification for the embargo was that the company sold arms to Iran.

Jen Psaki, the State Department spokesperson, said in a statement on September 30 that the US was ‘seriously concerned’ by Turkey’s giving the tender to a Chinese company and that this concern was communicated to Ankara.[2] One of the American points of ‘concern’ was that the system to be set up in Turkey by the Chinese company would not be compatible with NATO defense systems.

However, Turkey said there would be no change in their decision. At the time, Turkey was more worried about the compatibility issues in NATO’s own common security policy than technological compatibility. The missile defense system negotiations with China remained a point of tension between Ankara and Washington for a long time.

‘The World is Bigger Than Five’

The sins of Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey, as represented by him, did not end there. Coming up with the slogan “The World is Bigger Than Five” and voicing it at United Nations podiums, through English-language broadcasting remains one of the biggest sins.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council -the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China- shape every critical decision in the world.

Despite the fact that most of the crises in the world are happening in regions where Muslims live, the Middle East chief among them, there isn’t a single Muslim country among permanent members.

“The World is Bigger Than Five” is the manifestation of this status quo and injustice. It is natural that the biggest owner of the global order is disturbed by this surge. It is probable that the remaining four are equally bothered, at the same time it is certain that this slogan resonates with the rest of the world.

[1]When Turkey faced a missile threat coming from Iraq during the First Gulf War, it had to ask for a Patriot defense system from NATO, which took months to bring and set up in the country’s south. Twenty years later a similar threat came from Syria, and Turkey still did not have a defense system. It does not have one to this day. It is astonishing that this ‘security issue’ was never a talking point in the country for twenty years.

 This text was taken from the book 'Kusatma' ( The Siege ) written by Gurkan Zengin.