Last weekend the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, traveled to Turkey, a NATO ally that increasingly has charted its own course on Middle Eastern issues, particularly Iran.  Although Mullen’s ostensible purpose was to meet with his newly appointed counterpart, General Isik Kosaner, Mullen undoubtedly also sought to smooth over recent strains in bilateral relations caused by Turkey’s deteriorating relations with Israel and its improving relations with Iran.

Ankara’s vote against U.N. sanctions on Iran in June and its disingenuous diplomatic effort, in tandem with Brazil, to broker a cosmetic agreement that would have taken international pressure off Iran without resolving the problem of its nuclear weapons program, greatly disappointed the Obama Administration.

Admiral Mullen maintained that “I have not come to question or in any way rebut Turkey’s decision [to oppose] U.N. sanctions in Iran, though I note with gratitude the government’s decision to enforce those sanctions.”  Mullen also denied that his visit was designed to prod Turkey into stepping up its efforts in Afghanistan, where it has committed 1,700 troops to the coalition effort, the ninth largest foreign contingent, but has refused to allow its troops to undertake offensive operations against the Taliban.

Instead, Mullen’s visit likely was focused on gaining Turkish cooperation in facilitating the U.S. military drawdown in Iraq and in assisting the buildup of missile defenses against Iran.  The Turkish government in 2003 had refused to allow U.S. troops to invade Iraq from Turkish territory, straining relations with the Bush Administration.  But Mullen indicated that Washington now was seeking to transport non-military equipment and materials out of Iraq through Turkey, not combat weapons or troops.

Another U.S. goal will likely be more difficult to reach – obtaining Turkish cooperation in building a radar facility on Turkish territory as part of a regional missile defense system designed to counter Iran’s growing ballistic missile arsenal.  The United States has begun talks with Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria to explore their willingness to host missile defense radars, but Ankara is likely to drag its feet on participating in such a regional defense system. Although Turkey remains an important NATO ally, the “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy advocated by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu gives the Islamist government of Prime Minister Erdogan a convenient pretext for ruling out greater cooperation with the United States against Iran.

For more on Turkish-American relations, see: Countering Turkey’s Strategic Drift