April 2011, Pages 40-41

Special Report

Turkish Ambassador Addresses Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, Iran, Other Regional Issues

By Pat McDonnell Twair

Turkey’s Ambassador to the U.S. Namik Tan. (Staff photo Samir Twair)

Namik Tan was appointed as Turkey's ambassador to the U.S. in February 2010 and a year later he proved his diplomatic skills when he adroitly answered difficult and sometimes hostile questions at a Feb. 16 dinner meeting of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in Century City's Intercontinental Hotel.

Initially discoursing on relations between the U.S. and Turkey, the envoy said he's disappointed when Washington questions him about the shift in Turkey's political axis. "Turkey is not going anywhere" he stated.

Stressing that Turkey is the world's 16th largest economy, Tan said his nation is situated in one of the most unpredictable regions of the world.

"We were one of the first to feel the intensity of the protests in Egypt, a regime believed to have been robust that fell in 18 days. The Egyptian people deserve a free market economy and a democracy shaped by its own citizens. Turkey will stand by Egypt," he declared.

The ambassador views his task as one of asking his countrymen to look at the similarities they share with the U.S. which, he says, outweigh their differences.

After the floor was opened to questions, it became clear by the tone of the well-rehearsed queries that the finesse of the veteran diplomat was to be tested.

"What about women's rights in Turkey?" asked a well-dressed matron.

"Our women are sophisticated and elegant. Working rights were established in Turkey before the U.S.," he replied.

In reply to a query about the relationship between Israel and Turkey, Tan stated, "Israel is our friend, this matters profoundly. There have been good relationships between Turks and Jews for 517 years—120,000 Jews live in Turkey. We were the second nation after the U.S. to recognize the state of Israel."

Without specifically mentioning Israel's May 31, 2010 attack in which its commandoes boarded the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, killed nine Turks, wounded many more and forced the vessel and more than 400 passengers into the Israeli port of Ashdod, Tan went on to say: "Our Israeli friends made a mistake. I'm pretty sure they'll realize this. Just make an apology. In the early 1990s during a joint NATO exercise, the U.S. accidentally fired two missiles onto a Turkish frigate resulting in 10 Turkish deaths. The U.S. apologized. The alternative [to an Israeli apology] is they'll lose, we'll lose and the U.S. will lose."

When asked about protocols with Armenia, Tan replied: "I'm very positive about this, I think it will help with reconciliation. I've invested time in this process."

An audience member identifying himself with a Greek organization asked if the presence of Turkish occupying forces on Cyprus for the past 35 years was holding up Turkey's entry into the European Union.

Tan responded by citing a plan presented by the U.N. which the Turkish Cypriots accepted and the Greek Cypriots rejected. "Let's have the union like the U.N. proposed," he said. "We want the Cyprus problem behind us."

A longer response was required to a question dealing with Turkey's position on a nuclear Iran.

Harking back to the time when Mohamed ElBaradei headed the International Atomic Energy Agency, Tan recalled that ElBaradei asked for Turkey's assistance to persuade Iran to come to the negotiating table. Once Ankara was assured by Washington that it was in compliance with this request, Turkey began exchanging messages with the Iranians.

"We went to Iran—and don't forget, it was the Persians who invented the game of chess—it took two 18-hour days to get their cooperation," he explained. "We don't want Iranian nuclear weapons in our neighborhood. Take a moment to imagine our neighborhood—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, the Caucasus. We're in the center of complex problems."

Another question dealt with Kurdish aspirations for statehood and whether Turkey would be willing to cede some of its southeastern territory for such a Kurdish nation.

Noting that Kurds hold seats in Turkey's parliament, Tan opined that if Kurds have their rights and freedoms, it would be unlikely they'd fight for other entities.

"When will Turkey apologize to the Armenians?" asked another audience member.

"I can tell you we have different memories and narratives," he replied, adding that historians and scholars from both sides should get together and reach a just and accurate conclusion. "We must educate future generations not to hate. Create a just memory. Don't try to legislate history. It is a disservice to our children."

The final question came from a woman who asked the ambassador to respond to a statement made by Turkey's President Abdullah Gul the previous day on a trip to Tehran, that he agreed to a road map with Iran on its nuclear program.

Tan congratulated his questioner for being more informed of President Gul's travel to Iran than he was. "Assuming this is true, Iran has the right to develop peaceful nuclear energy," he said. "Any country has the full right to have nuclear energy, but not to develop nuclear weapons. We are not siding with Iran—we are side-by-side with Iran." 

Pat McDonnell Twair is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.

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