- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 14, 2011

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — An early warning radar will be stationed in Turkey’s southeast as part of NATO’s missile defense system, the Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday. The deployment reflects improving relations with the United States, which were strained after the invasion of Iraq.

The system is capable of countering ballistic missile threats from Turkey’s neighbor Iran, which has warned Turkey that deploying the radar at the military installation will escalate regional tensions. Turkey insists the shield doesn’t target a specific country, and the ministry statement didn’t mention Iran.

Turkey agreed to host the radar earlier this month in the framework of the NATO missile defense architecture, saying it would strengthen both its own and NATO’s defense capacities.

“In this context, the site surveys and relevant legal arrangements have also been finalized, and accordingly a military installation in Kurecik has been designated as the radar site,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said. “That installation was used in the past for similar purposes.”

Kurecik, in Malatya province, lies some 435 miles west of the Iranian border.

Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said earlier this month that the United States hopes to have the radar deployed there by the end of the year.

The deployment in Turkey, the biggest Muslim voice in NATO, signals improving ties with Washington since the 2003 Iraq invasion. Turkey also closely works with U.S. forces in NATO operations in Afghanistan and Libya, though it is not directly involved in combat.

Earlier this week, Turkey confirmed talks with the U.S. for possible deployment of Predator drones on its soil after the U.S. leaves Iraq. The U.S. currently shares drone surveillance data with Turkey to aid its fight against Kurdish rebels who have bases in Iraq. Turkish authorities did not specify if they want armed drones or just surveillance ones.

Turkey’s announcement about the radar came a day after Romania signed a deal to host a crucial part of a U.S. missile defense system. Romanian President Traian Basescu announced the deal after meeting with President Obama in Washington.

NATO members agreed to an anti-missile system over Europe to protect against Iranian ballistic missiles at a summit in Lisbon last year. A compromise not to pinpoint Iran was reached with Turkey, which had threatened to block the deal if its neighbor was explicitly named as a threat.

Turkey has built close economic ties with Iran and has been at odds with the United States on its stance toward Iran’s nuclear program, arguing for a diplomatic solution to the standoff instead of sanctions.

But the agreement over hosting the radar comes at a time when Turkey and Iran appear to be differing on their approach toward Syria, with Turkey becoming increasingly critical of Iranian ally Syria’s brutal suppression of anti-regime protests.

Under the NATO plans, a limited system of U.S. anti-missile interceptors and radars already planned for Europe — to include interceptors in Romania and Poland as well as the radar in Turkey — would be linked to expanded European-owned missile defenses. That would create a broad system that protects every NATO country against medium-range missile attack.

Russia opposes the planned missile defense system, which it worries could threaten its own nuclear missiles or undermine their deterrence capability. Moscow agreed to consider a NATO proposal last year to cooperate on the missile shield but insisted the system be run jointly. NATO rejected that demand, and no compromise has been found yet.

The Islamic Republic remains locked in a standoff with the West over its nuclear program, which the U.S. and its allies suspect is aimed at developing atomic weapons. Iran denies the charges and says the program is only for peaceful purposes.

Iran conducts several war games every year as part of a military self-sufficiency program that started in 1992, and it frequently unveils new weapons and military systems during the drills. In recent exercises, Iran unveiled underground missile silos that it says is capable of multiple launches.

Tehran says its longest-range missiles, Shahab-3 and Sajjil-2, can travel up to 1,240 miles — putting Israel, U.S. bases in the Gulf region and parts Europe within reach.

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