Friday, April 10, 2009

Obama hears from Ankara, CIA on Caucasus, NRC on Armenia, Turkish President visits Moscow

This was first published in February 21, 2009 Armenian Reporter

Washington Briefing
by Emil Sanamyan

Obama hears about Armenia from Turkish leaders

President Barack Obama had "wide-ranging" phone discussions with Turkey's president and prime minister, the White House reported on February 16. President Obama initiated the calls to "emphasize his desire to strengthen U.S.-Turkish relations" and to discuss specific U.S. concerns related to its Middle East priorities.

According to Turkish media, President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan both raised Turkey's opposition to U.S. affirmation of the Armenian Genocide. During the election campaign, Mr. Obama pledged that as president, he would recognize the Armenian Genocide.

Turkish media claimed that in response Mr. Obama welcomed the recently intensified dialogue between Armenia and Turkey. According to Mr. Erdogan's office, Mr. Obama added that "America always understands Turkey's sensitivities."

The White House read out of the conversation made no mention of Armenian concerns and, as of press time, the White House had not responded to the Armenian Reporter's request for clarification.

Meanwhile, Mr. Erdogan again lashed out at Israel, questioning Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's credibility. His remarks came after the outgoing head of the Israeli government attempted to explain why, during a visit to Turkey just days before launching the Gaza operation, he did not tell Mr. Erdogan about Israel's military plans, Zaman newspaper reported on February 19.

National intelligence director notes Caucasus problems

"Fundamental differences between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh will keep tensions high in the Caucasus," National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in testimony on February 12.

The testimony summarized recent developments around the standoff: "Azerbaijan fears isolation in the wake of Kosovo's independence, Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and signs of improved Armenian-Turkish relations. Armenia is concerned about Baku's military buildup and does not want to become dependent on Russia. Both countries face the dual challenges of overcoming inertia in democratic reforms and battling endemic corruption in the face of an economic downturn."

In the aftermath of the Georgia war, the U.S. intelligence community's "Eurasia/Caucasus/Central Asia" concerns occupied a full page of the total 44 pages of testimony.

Admiral Blair noted that despite its many problems, "the Russian military defeated the Georgian military last August." He also referred to Russia's persistent line that Georgia's and Ukraine's membership in NATO would put U.S.-Russia cooperation on international security issues in jeopardy.

In their recent comments, Obama administration officials have stepped back from the Bush administration's outright support for the two countries' NATO membership.

In a possibly related development, Russia this week indicated it would continue to hold up supplies of sophisticated air defense missile systems to Iran.

U.S. nuclear regulator ready to help Armenia

"We have had a good bilateral agreement with Armenia," sharing technology and training, chairperson of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Dale Klein told the Armenian Reporter on February 13.

Asked if the United States would continue to have a role in Armenia's efforts to replace its existing nuclear power plant with a new one in coming years, Mr. Klein said he and his counterparts in Armenia enjoyed a "very good relationship" and, "if asked for help, [the NRC] will try to help to the extent that [it] can."

The NRC oversees safety and security of U.S. plants and provides expertise around the world. An NRC commissioner, Peter Lyons, visited Armenia last year and the United States had funded a feasibility study looking at options for building a new reactor.

Mr. Klein noted that for the United States to take part in the Armenian nuclear energy sector, privately owned U.S. companies would have to be attracted to the project. In general, he said, it made sense for Armenia to have a "diversified portfolio" in terms of energy supplies.

In remarks at the Council on the Foreign Relations, Mr. Klein said that 50 new nuclear power plants were being built around the world, 21 of them in China and 12 in India.

In the United States, in addition to 104 functioning power plants, 17 applications for 26 more reactors are currently being considered by the NRC.

But there are concerns that fewer reactors may end up being built, considering the economic slowdown and the Obama administration's reservations about the long-term impact of nuclear waste.

Russia, Turkey tout friendly relations

Turkey's President Abdullah Gül visited with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin on February 13, with the two presidents signing a joint declaration "on new stage of relations" and "deepening of friendship and wide-ranging cooperation," according to the Kremlin website. Mr. Gül made a four-day state visit to Russia between February 12 and 15.

The declaration, mirroring the document signed during then President Vladimir Putin's visit to Turkey in 2004, emphasized cooperation on energy and trade issues.

Russia is seeking to build four nuclear reactors in Turkey worth $20 billion and supply electricity to Turkey on a long-term basis, Russia's energy minister said the same day. Turkey already relies on Russia for natural-gas supplies, and overall bilateral trade topped $32 billion in 2008.

The document also briefly referred to the need to settle Caucasus conflicts. Last year, Turkey in effect backed Russia's military action against Georgia, although Ankara has declined to recognize Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

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