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An Interview with the Turkish Prime Minister

Aired April 13, 2010 - 15:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the nuclear security summit in Washington has formally opened, with a stark warning from U.S. President Barack Obama that the risk of nuclear terrorism has gone up.

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to our program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

Before dozens of world leaders that he's invited to Washington, President Obama has said that the risk of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons is greater, even as the risk of nuclear war between nations has declined.

A key issue hanging over today's summit is Iran's refusal to accept a confidence-building deal over its nuclear program. The U.S. and other countries say that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Tehran says that its program is peaceful.

China's president, Hu Jintao, came to Washington, and he's told President Obama that his country will join talks on sanctions, but still prefers a diplomatic solution.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is refusing to support any sanctions against Tehran, and his opinion matters, because Turkey right now is on the U.N. Security Council. In a moment, we'll talk to Prime Minister Erdogan in an exclusive interview.

But first, CNN's Ivan Watson reports Erdogan's policy shifts are stirring unease in some quarters.


IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Recep Tayyip Erdogan first swept to power in 2002. His campaign promised then get Turkey into the European Union. He introduced democratic reforms and succeeded in launching E.U. membership negotiations in 2005, but Erdogan's government has also repeatedly clashed with the powerful Turkish military and this overwhelmingly Muslim country's traditional secular establishment.

ONUR OYMEN, MEMBER OF TURKISH PARLIAMENT: He will be (inaudible) as a person who wanted to turn a secular democratic republic into a sort of Islamic society.

WATSON: Erdogan insists he gave up political Islam in 1999. Cheering crowds escorted him then when, as mayor of Istanbul, he was sentenced to six months in prison for reading an Islamic poem in public.

But last February, it was the once untouchable retired military top brass who were under arrest, accused of plotting to overthrow Erdogan's government, a sign of just how much power has shifted in Turkey.

Erdogan's hot temper has led some to question his democratic credentials. And during a heated debate last year, he accused the president of Israel of killing Palestinian children in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Turkey has gone out of its way to improve ties with its eastern Muslim neighbors, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

(on-screen): After decades of relative isolation, Erdogan's government is reaching out to the Middle East. This dramatic foreign policy shift has generated some concern among Turkey's traditional Western allies, but some would argue these Middle Eastern overtures are only natural for a country that straddles both Europe and Asia.

Ivan Watson, CNN, Istanbul.


AMANPOUR: And I talked about that with Prime Minister Erdogan, who's at President Obama's nuclear summit in Washington, as well as other issues, like his controversial stance on Iran and Israel.


AMANPOUR: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

ERDOGAN (through translator): Thank you.

AMANPOUR: What do you hope to achieve here at the Nuclear Security Summit?

ERDOGAN (through translator): I have responded to this invitation with great hope. Our wish and desire is to make sure that this step that is taking -- that is being taken for the prevention of the proliferation of nuclear arms will provide a positive response to the expectations of the people.

AMANPOUR: As you know, there are many, many heads of state, heads of government here. Iran has not been invited, and the world is very concerned about Iran's nuclear program. President Obama and allies are talking about imposing sanctions on Iran, to bring it back within the NPT.


Will you support, as a member of the Security Council and as a NATO ally, sanctions on Iran?

ERDOGAN (through translator): We do not want to see any nuclear weapons in our region. And in all of our discussions with our Iranian counterparts, we have always expressed this opinion. And what the Iranians have always clearly stated to us has been that they have no investment on nuclear arms, that they are involved in activities in peaceful means, and if Turkey is asked to be -- to act as an intermediary, we, I believe, can help and to find the solution, because the process should be resolved not through sanctions, but through diplomacy, in my view.

AMANPOUR: Will Turkey vote for sanctions, if that comes up?

ERDOGAN (through translator): With Iran, we have an agreement which dates back to 1639, the Kasri Sirin agreement, and we have not had any issues with Iran since then, all these years. And we have a land border of 380 kilometers. We have a lot of investment going in both directions, and our bilateral trade exceeds $10 billion. And after Russia, Iran is the second-largest supplier of natural gas to Turkey.

Of course, all of these relations lead to some sort of a strategic alliance between our two countries. And for us to step away from such a relationship would be something that would be difficult.

This special relationship could, in fact, be great opportunity to achieve a peaceful solution to these discussions. And that is why I refer to diplomacy as a way to resolve the issue, and I believe we can do it.

AMANPOUR: Well, so far, it hasn't seemed to have worked. You've outlined several diplomatic initiatives to Iran, and it has not worked. What do you think they're using their nuclear program for? What do you think their intentions are?

ERDOGAN (through translator): The IAEA has not definitively come out to say that the facility is for nuclear arms. What is being said is that Iran is not acting transparently and that there is a probability, a possibility that such work could be ongoing. But there is no definitive determination there.

So under those circumstances, if Iran is saying that they are establishing their facilities for civilian use, and they showed their facilities to the officials from the IAEA, that being the case, for us to say, "No, they are doing this for a nuclear arms facility," is, in my opinion, not proper.

AMANPOUR: How then do you propose to make them come into full compliance with the NPT and with the IAEA so there are no more questions about their intentions?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Iran is party to NPT and is also a member of the IAEA, but there's another country in the region which does not recognize NPT, but is a member of the IAEA. So why do we not say the same thing to the country that does not recognize the NPT? Because that also is a cause for concern for me. But we don't do that. And we are putting pressure on a country that says that it does not have this.

AMANPOUR: You're talking about Israel?


AMANPOUR: It was said that you are going to come here and insist that Israel sign up to the NPT. And for certain reasons such as that, the prime minister of Israel canceled his visit to this nuclear security summit. Is that your position here?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Well, that is not the only thing. We have to think of this issue in a broader sense. That is not the only issue that we can consider within the overall discussion of nuclear issues.

AMANPOUR: Before you arrived here, you were quoted in the Turkish press at home as saying, "The world is turning a blind eye to Israel's nuclear program." What is Turkey going to ask, demand, lobby for here regarding Israel and its undeclared nuclear program?


ERDOGAN (through translator): I have brought this issue to the agenda a number of times, and I can talk about it today and tomorrow, because if this is, indeed, the case, and if we are going to exercises politics on justice and in order to achieve piece, we must speak these issues. And all countries must approach the issue fairly.

Iran cannot be the only agenda item with regard to these issues. Israel cannot be the only agenda item, either. We should be looking at it from a much broader perspective, which is what we will do. And we have to discuss the issue, because this is a core issue that we have to discuss, analyze, assess, so that we can look into what has been achieved so far and what we can achieve in the future and what we can prevent.


AMANPOUR: So when it comes to Iran, is Turkey trying to save it or sink it, as one editorial is asking? And that's the question posed on our Facebook page, so please weigh in at

And next, we'll ask Prime Minister Erdogan about a dispute that has cast a long shadow over Turkey and its relations with the United States for nearly a century, and that's just how to characterize what happened to the Armenians during World War I.



AMANPOUR: More now of my interview with the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the ongoing controversy over the deaths of more than 1 million Armenians during World War I and whether, as many believe, it was genocide by the Turkish-controlled Ottoman Empire. It's a charge that Ankara strongly denies.

Also, I discussed with him Turkey's role straddling both east and west.


AMANPOUR: I want to ask you about relations with the United States. There is concern, even amongst your supporters in the world -- here in the U.S., as well -- that Turkey seems to, as one prominent U.S. congressman has said, contemplating a fundamental realignment of its alliances, shifting from the pro-U.S., pro-Western, to a much more pro-Eastern, with all your neighbors, as you mentioned, Iran, Syria, et cetera.

Is that correct?

ERDOGAN (through translator): It is not possible for me to agree with this assessment. When we came to government, Turkey unfortunately did not have good relations with neighboring countries. And during our tenure in government, our goal has always been to achieve zero problems with our neighbors. And by this, I mean our neighbors to the east, west, north and south.

And at the same time, we have, with E.U. member states, important areas of cooperation, which is perhaps unprecedented in the past. We are not just a candidate country for membership for the European Union; we are a negotiating country. We are negotiating for membership.

We're facing to the west. We are continuing and pursuing our foreign policy in the way of normalizing our relations in all directions. And this does not mean that we would leave the West and move in another direction.


AMANPOUR: Well, there's been a bit of a crisis between Turkey and the United States over the last several weeks, after a congressional panel voted to describe the Armenian genocide as genocide in 1915 and you withdrew ambassadors. Then you put your ambassador back.

What do you expect President Obama to do about this issue, about calling what happened in Armenia a genocide, especially when he talks to the Armenian-American community in about two weeks from now?

ERDOGAN (through translator): I think that we have to make an observation here first. We have a strategic alliance with the United States, so our two countries are very much intertwined in all the work that they do -- that they have been doing together. We have been in NATO together for a long time.

Characterizing the events of 1915 as genocide is not something that we can accept. It's a legal term, and we cannot -- we cannot make that decision. It's the historians. It's the scientists who have to look into this matter.

With respect to this so-called genocide, our expectation is that our sensitivities are taken into consideration in the use of these terms, because there was, at the time of those events, a lot of problems. And this was a time of war. There were many revolts going on in the country. And those events were as a result of that.

AMANPOUR: Have you been assured that President Obama will not use the word "genocide" in his speech, in his address to the American-Armenian community?

ERDOGAN (through translator): I will be seeing him. We will be talking. That would be my expectation, because to this day, no American leader has uttered that word, and I believe that President Obama will not.

AMANPOUR: Do you see any time in the future that Turkey will change its opinion and do what other countries have done? France, for instance, recognizes it as a genocide.

ERDOGAN (through translator): No one should expect this of Turkey. We believe that we can resolve this issue, this problem by being fair. No people has the right to impose the way it remembers history to another nation or people. And Turkey does not try to do that. But no one should impose Turkey their own version of history. That is not something that we would -- should be expected to accept.

And, moreover, we -- it's not a question of us, Turkey, accepting the events in 1915. This was a time of revolts, and this was not an issue of genocide at all. And there were deaths, killings.

What is important is to look into the archives, the historical documents, and work must be carried on, on those documents. If, as the result of this work, it turns -- comes out that there is such a situation, we would then consider and question our history.

But no one should disregard the suffering that the Turkish people had, either.


AMANPOUR: When we return, questions for Prime Minister Erdogan on why he's gone from security cooperation with Israel to a relationship strained practically to the breaking point.



AMANPOUR: As we continued our conversation, I asked the Turkish prime minister whether relations between Turkey and Israel can ever be salvaged.


AMANPOUR: Turkey and Israel had shared security issues and had a very productive bilateral relations for a long time. Analysts, both Turkish and Israeli, have recently said they do not believe that that relationship can be saved, can be -- can be put back on track. Do you agree?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Well, I don't know who made this assessment and how, but all countries in the world need each other, but the degree to which they need each other may be different. We are not enemies with anyone in the region.

AMANPOUR: Except you just called Israel the biggest threat to peace in the Middle East, the principal threat to peace in the Middle East, you just said about Israel.

ERDOGAN (through translator): This was not the way I said it. I think we should make sure that we understand what we say.

What I'm looking for is contribution to peace. And I want Israel to contribute to peace. If we speak of this as threat, it's one thing. If we speak of it as contribution, it's another.

I would like to see Israel contribute to peace. This is what I mean. And the current coalition government in Israel is, unfortunately, not providing that contribution, that support, because this coalition -- this three-way coalition has different voices. When they speak, it's not a symphony, it's a cacophony. We have to try to make sure that it's a symphony. If it doesn't become a symphony harmony, then we cannot hear the voices of peace. This is what we would like to see, the voices of peace.

On the one hand, there are some negative statements about Turkey and - - for example, about Jerusalem, when the minister of interior says that it will be their -- it's their capital, then, of course, this has an impact on Turkey, where 99 percent of the population is Muslim. It has an impact on the 1.6 billion Islamic world, because Jerusalem has been a very important place for Muslims throughout history.

And -- but we have provided all the results of archeological work carried out to the Israelis, to the U.N., and there is a lot of destruction there. And with respect to the West Bank and the building of structures there, we have had discussions with Mr. Peres in the past, and we have said that we could all work together.

We talked to all the non-governmental organizations seeking peace, and the non-governmental organizations in Israel who seek peace understand us. But it's the government, the administration, that doesn't understand us. Otherwise, we don't have a problem with the Israeli people. It's the government or it's the administration.

There are Jewish people in my country, and I have no problem with them, either. They're happy with me; I'm happy with them.

AMANPOUR: Regarding Iran again, because the West does not seem satisfied...

ERDOGAN (through translator): So Iran is always on our agenda, it seems.

AMANPOUR: It seems to be on the agenda of this summit, which is why everybody's here, and which is why we're talking. Does it concern you that Iran could end up like Iraq, the victim of an invasion, a war, because it won't comply fully with the NPT and with what the IAEA needs, in terms of inspections?

ERDOGAN (through translator): I would not even want to think about such a situation, let alone talk about it. It would be a nightmare scenario. This is not something that one can think of, because in Iraq, we see the situation. It was a civilization that collapsed.


As someone who has been to Iraq -- I've been to Iraq -- there are hundreds of thousands of widowed women. It's a human tragedy. And isn't this something that those who have created this consequence, that -- isn't it something that they should be considering or thinking? How long will it take?

AMANPOUR: But isn't it also partly the leadership of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, did not satisfy the inspectors? And, yes, he didn't have a nuclear program, but he didn't satisfy the inspectors. Do you not think that that's worrisome for the future?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Well, could one have sacrificed all of Iraq for one Saddam Hussein? What about diplomacy, then? What is diplomacy for? What are diplomats for? What are politicians for?

We have spoken of this for a long time. We said that we should try to resolve issues through diplomacy. And we speak of a democratic parliamentary system, right? Well, since we believe that democratic parliamentary system is the way out, why not try to utilize them more? I believe that, if we can do that, we can solve many problems.

AMANPOUR: As a friend of Iran, what can you do? Do you have a diplomatic offer that you can make that would resolve this situation?

ERDOGAN (through translator): I am here. I am here for a diplomatic solution. And countries that are members of the IAEA and the countries that sign up to the NPT, we must all work together on this. And as Turkey, we could act as a very important intermediary, and I believe that we can find a way out.

AMANPOUR: On that note, Prime Minister Erdogan, thank you very much, indeed, for joining us.

ERDOGAN: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And tomorrow, from the Middle East to Africa. We'll have an exclusive with another leader at the nuclear summit, Nigeria's acting president, Goodluck Jonathan, in his first interview since taking power. Until then, check out our program whenever you like at

For all of us here, goodbye now from New York.