US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has brushed off criticism leveled against Turkey by Iran because of the former's decision to host part of NATO's missile-shield system on its soil, saying "whether they like it or not, other countries are going to have to accept that [missile shield]", Today's Zaman reported
Speaking to a group of reporters in Ankara on Friday, Panetta said he commended the Turkish government's decision to host part of the missile shield. He said the purpose of the defense shield is to prevent attacks to NATO member states from other countries, adding that "Turkey realizes importance of this." Describing Turkey as a "critical partner for the US and important NATO ally," Panetta said "we have urged Iran to join the family of nations and to not isolate itself." He added, "Turkey agrees that Iran should be part of the family of nations instead of undermining the region."
There has been a wave of criticisms leveled against Turkey by Iranian officials in recent months, and the Turkish government has been under fire by opposition parties for remaining silent.
Hussein Ibrahim, the vice president of the Iranian parliamentary national security and foreign policy panel, suggested that "it is Iran's natural right to target the missile-defense shield system in Turkey in case of an attack, and we will definitely resort to that," in an interview on Sunday with the Iranian daily Shargh.
Ibrahim's words were similar to those of other Iranian officials before him, and hinted to Ankara that annoyance with the new NATO project is widespread among Iranian politicians, although the Iranian foreign ministry has refrained from backing the threats. Shortly before Ibrahim's comments, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards' aerospace division, explicitly uttered a threat that the NATO radar system, which is planned for deployment in the eastern province of Malatya, would be "the first target" to be taken down should Iran ever be attacked, and the country would move on to their next targets only after that.
Following Ankara's demand for an explanation from Tehran over the threatening remarks made by Iranian officials on Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has reaffirmed deep ties of friendship and fraternity between countries, adding that Iran has already warned those responsible for reckless remarks against Turkey.
The defensive missile-shield system mentioned by Ibrahim as a cause of war between Iran and Turkey is a US design planned for installation in a number of NATO member countries as a means for early warning against ballistic missiles coming from outside of Europe, such as Iran.
Panetta also urged Turkey to mend fences with Israel at a time when a lot of changes are happening in the region. "It is important for both countries to do what they can. They had strong ties in the past," he said, encouraging both countries to work together in confronting challenges in the region.
Turkey scaled down its relations with Israel and demanded a formal apology after the May 31, 2010, raid on the Mavi Marmara ship, which was carrying humanitarian aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip. Israel refused to apologize, saying its soldiers acted in self-defense. Ankara responded with a set of sanctions, expelling the Israeli ambassador and suspending military agreements with Israel. Turkey also said it would take measures to ensure freedom of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean where the 2010 raid took place.
Panetta also argued that there is close cooperation between the US and Turkey on the latter's decade-long fight with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and expressed the US's solidarity in its fight against the PKK terrorists. "We provide some technology and assistance in the fight against the PKK. We try to improve in that capacity and continue to explore other steps," underscored Panetta.
Turkey has intensified its fight against the PKK, which has stepped up its terrorist attacks against Turkish security forces, civilians and businesses in southeastern Turkey over the past six months.
US-deployed Predator drones at İncirlik Air Base in southern Turkey are being used as part of Turkey's fight against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Two of the four Predators drones deployed on Nov. 14 at İncirlik Air Base made their first test flights in Adana. The lift-off operation was carried out by the American staff of the Ground Control Unit at the base. The Predators were controlled during the whole flight by a center based in the US state of Nevada. Images of the flight will be delivered to US military quarters in Ankara after initially being sent to the US.
Panetta said the US has obtained permission to fly these drones over Iraqi airspace.
Before coming to Turkey, Panetta saw the end of the US war in Iraq on Thursday with an official ceremony in Baghdad nearly nine years after the invasion that ousted authoritarian Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The war left nearly 4,500 US soldiers dead and over 100,000 civilians killed either by US forces or the bloody sectarian fight between majority Shi'ite and minority Sunni Arabs. The price tag for the war is estimated to be over $800 billion. The US military mission will be replaced by a State Department mission next year with as many as 16,000 staff and contracted personnel in Iraq to be deployed under a different scheme.
Defending involvement in Iraq, Panetta said he is optimistic that Iraq will stay stable, independent and sovereign. "The price was worth it," he said. He warned that there will be groups within or outside of the country who will try to destabilize Iraq, stressing that Iraqi people are very loyal to their country. Iraq still struggles however with the insurgency, a fragile power-sharing government and an oil-reliant economy plagued by power shortages and corruption. Iraq's neighbors, including Turkey, will keep a close watch on how Baghdad will confront its problems without the buffer of a US military presence. In trying to allay concerns over the US withdrawal, Panetta confirmed that the US will stay committed to Iraq. "We will have long-term relationship with Iraq and continue to work with Iraq," he said.
As for Syria, the US Defense Secretary commended the Turkish position, saying Turkey has exercised leadership in trying to get [Bashar] al-Assad to do the right thing. "Assad needs to step down. At some point it will happen," he said, noting that the recent Russian proposal at the UN Security Council is an indication that the international community is coming together to deliver a unified message to Syria. "Ultimately this [pressure] will pay off," he said.