WASHINGTON (Turkish Daily News)–The United States, while praising Turkey’s newly-elected civilian leaders as friends of America, has called on Ankara to take a series of critical political steps, including refraining from energy deals with Iran, opening its border with Armenia, lifting obstacles before freedom of speech and reopening a Greek Orthodox religious school.
“We very much welcome (Abdullah) Gul’s election” as president, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Nick Burns, said late Thursday in a speech on U.S.-Turkish relations at the Atlantic Council, a think tank.
He said the U.S. administration was against the passage of an Armenian genocide resolution pending in the U.S. House of Representatives, but urged Turkey to move toward reconciliation with Armenia.
“We call on Turkey to normalize its relations and open its border with Armenia,” Burns said. Turkey has no diplomatic relations with Armenia and accuses it of occupying part of neighboring Azerbaijan’s territory in the Caucasus. On the domestic policy front, Burns urged Ankara to abolish Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which limits freedom of speech, according to critics.
He said Washington was looking forward to working with Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan both of whom he said were “good allies of the United States.”
Burns’ policy speech, in which he focused on the prospects and challenges awaiting the U.S.-Turkish relationship, came ahead of high-level talks. He will travel to Ankara early next week, and Erdogan is expected to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush in the United States within the next two weeks.
Burns highlighted Turkey’s role as a bridge between the West and the chaotic Middle East, qualifying the NATO nation as the most successful example of secular democracy in Muslim-populated countries.
He said Gul’s election showed the maturity of Turkey’s democracy. Then he presented the Turks with a list of U.S. requests. Turkey’s “to-do list” He made it clear that the United States was much annoyed by Turkey’s move this summer to sign a memorandum of understanding on natural gas cooperation with Iran.
Washington accuses Tehran of seeking to obtain weapons of mass destruction, and urges its allies to impose stronger sanctions on the Islamic Republic. “Now is not the time for business as usual with Iran,” Burns said.
Earlier, U.S. officials warned that Turkey might be subject to U.S. sanctions if its planned natural gas cooperation with Iran progressed.
He also said Turkey should reopen the Greek Orthodox theological school of Halki in Istanbul to boost religious freedom. Nothing new on PKK front However, on the critical matter of the fight against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose militants attack Turkish targets from bases in neighboring northern Iraq, Burns did not have much to offer.
“I’m confident that we’ll see progress,” he said, without elaborating what could be done against the PKK on the ground. U.S. and Turkish officials have said the Iraq issue, including the PKK problem, was the largest obstacle before U.S.-Turkish relations. On Cyprus, Burns urged United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to launch a fresh effort for the Mediterranean island’s reunification.
He reiterated Washington’s backing for Turkey’s future membership to the European Union. Four former U.S. ambassadors to Ankara, Morton Abramowitz, Marc Grossman, Marc Parris and Robert Pearson, Turkey’s ambassador to Washington, Nabi ?ensoy, and Armenia’s ambassador to Washington, Tatoul Markarian, were among dignitaries in Burns’s audience.
Some analysts suggested that Burns’s speech had little new to offer Turkey. One former U.S. diplomat said Burns had voiced several deman’s, but in most cases “there’s no beef with Turkey.”
The U.S. State Department announced that the Turkish government generally respects the freedom of religion but still imposes some restrictions on Muslim and other religious groups and on Muslim religious expression in government and state-run institutions, including universities.
“There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the government during the reporting period, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion,” the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor said in a report titled “International Religious Freedom Report2007” released on Sept. 14 in Washington.