SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, the world is alarmed by Iran's nuclear ambitions, especially after the announcement that it is now capable of enriching uranium on an industrial level. Do you share Western fears about the possibility of Tehran developing a nuclear bomb?
Erdogan: We are against nuclear weapons, regardless of whether they are in the hands of Iran or Israel or any Western country. But obviously some states are allowed to have weapons of mass destruction while others are not. If nuclear energy is used for the sake of humanity, then we say yes. But if it is used destructively, then no. The knife in the hand of a murderer kills, but if you give it to a doctor he will heal with it.
SPIEGEL: Do you believe that Iran is exclusively pursuing civilian use of nuclear energy?
Erdogan: Right now I can only take the answers that I am given. I personally spoke several times with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about this -- also at the request of France, the United Kingdom and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And he is always saying: We will use it only for the benefit of our people. For now I have to accept it like this, without implying something else.
SPIEGEL: As the international community pushes to increase pressure on Iran, Turkey is developing closer and more amicable ties to Tehran. Do you support sanctions against Iran?
Erdogan: If the nuclear program is indeed meant only for civil purposes, then it is wrong to impose sanctions. I said from the beginning that we think a diplomatic way would be better.
SPIEGEL: Three weeks ago the United Nations Security Council decided to sharpen punitive measures against Iran. Was this a mistake in your opinion?
Erdogan: The Security Council made this decision on the basis of its own conclusion and evidence. First we would like to see exactly what the embargo means in practice and which countries follow it.
SPIEGEL: As Iraq's neighbor, you share the international community's concern about the possible disintegration of the multi-ethnic state. But you are also complaining about a special problem: PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) fighters who are hiding in the northern part of the country.
Erdogan: Yes, unfortunately these terrorists have found safe haven there. They are attacking us from northern Iraq, they are smuggling weapons and terrorists into our country. We already sent a diplomatic note to the government in Baghdad. We expect decisive action to be taken against those terrorists. Otherwise we have the right to defend ourselves.
SPIEGEL: Your chief of staff, Yasar Büyükanit, just pleaded publicly for a miltary intervention. Do you really want to send your army into northern Iraq?
Erdogan: For years we have been patiently waiting. According to international law we have the right to guarantee our national security. When the Iraqi Kurds fled from Saddam Hussein, we hosted them in our country. That's another reason why it is inconceivable to us that they are now providing hiding places for the terrorists.
SPIEGEL: Under your leadership Turkey is re-emerging more strongly as a regional power -- you are intensifying your relations with Arab and Islamic states and you are taking part on a regular basis in summits of the Arab League. Meanwhile, a crisis seems to be looming in your relationships with the United States and Europe. Is Turkey in the process of realigning itself geopolitically from west to east?
Erdogan: I don't understand that. When we strengthen our relations with the Gulf states, when we cooperate with the Arabs, everybody asks if we are looking for a new geopolitical place. But in the Middle East and the Gulf, you can find German, French and British goods everywhere. German relations to these states are very good, as are English and French relations. Does this make them Arab-oriented? The whole world is an open, free market. No state can exist without the others.
SPIEGEL: But the language you use to describe your relationship with, for example, Saudi Arabia is striking: "We are not only bound by friendship, but by ties of brotherhood, as people of the same civilization."
Erdogan: What is wrong with it? We all want an alliance of civilizations, don't we? Turkey and Spain are co-chairs of the United Nations initiative with this name. Turkey is the gateway to the east for Europe, and the gateway to Europe for the east. We have a bridging function that Europe shouldnt underestimate.
SPIEGEL: Would there be an alternative to Europe at all for Turkey?
Erdogan: Look, about 60 percent of our trade is done with the EU and not with the Gulf states, up to 10 percent with US, around 6 percent with China and the rest is done with other countries. Dont forget, Turkey's path toward Europe started back in 1959, almost 50 years ago. But we have been pushed to the side ever since. Despite all the hurdles we will not deviate from our course towards Europe - even by one step.
SPIEGEL: Out of frustration, the Turkish population is increasingly turning away from Europe.
Erdogan: Unfortunately, our European friends are instigating this negative view with their discouraging statements. When the opening round of negotiations began in 2005, 70 percent of Turkeys citizens favored the EU; today it is only 50 percent. If you ask if they want Turkey to become an EU member, 60 to 65 percent still say yes. But if you ask: Do you believe Europe will accept Turkey, 60 percent say no.
SPIEGEL: What are you saying?
Erdogan: We want to be treated by the same standards as other countries. If you compare us to some other newly accepted EU members our performance, especially in terms of the economy, is much better.
SPIEGEL: Turkey wants confirmation now that it will finally become a member of the EU?
Erdogan: We would like a clear target date, a road map, a timetable for negotiations. With that Europe could prove to our people that they are sincere.
SPIEGEL: Which date do you have in mind?
Erdogan: One could set 2014 or 2015 as a date for our accession to the EU. But above all I am calling on the EU to be honest: If the EU doesnt want us, they should say it now and clearly. If we are not wanted, then both sides dont need to waste their time with negotiations. Is Europe a home for an alliance of civilizations or is it a Christian club? If the former is true, then Turkey should be part of it.
"Germany Could Have Given us Greater Support"
SPIEGEL: Brussels complains that the pace of reforms in Turkey has slowed. For example, you still have the infamous Article 301, which makes the denigration of Turkishness prosecutable and limits freedom of opinion. The EU is also demanding complete freedom of religion.
Erdogan: In Turkey the religious minorities have more rights than they do in Europe. What aspect of their faith are they not allowed to live out here? Do we tear down their churches?
SPIEGEL: Churches are not allowed to own property, they are not a legal entity. Churches have been expropriated from many Christian communities.
Erdogan: We changed the construction law. Before, there were only "mosques," but now we have "places of worship." New churches are opening. We wanted to change the law on religious institutions, but the president didnt sign it. Now we're sending it through parliament again. The courts have also started to return property of minority institutions that has been seized.
SPIEGEL: Why are churches still prohibited from training their own priests? The EU has been calling for the famous Greek-Orthodox seminary on the island of Halki near Istanbul to be reopened.
Erdogan: If they don't accept us into the EU because of Halki, so be it! This is a different situation. We have problems with Turkish law in this case. It used to be a high school, but now they want to transform it into a kind of university, but the high council for universities doesn't permit this.
SPIEGEL: Why are authors still tried in Turkey under Article 301?
Erdogan: I see that you are influenced by the Turkish press! Please check how many have been sentenced under this law or are in jail.
SPIEGEL: But people have been convicted. For example, murdered journalist Hrant Dink, who had Armenian roots, was sentenced to probation.
Erdogan: I met the writers who say that Article 301 must be completely eliminated. I asked them: Do you want to make it easier to decry the state, the parliament or the prime minister? I am saying yes to criticism, but no to insults. There are similar laws in Europe -- but for us it is about Turkishness, and for you it is about the German nation.
SPIEGEL: But we are protecting the state, there is no protection for "Germanness." So you dont want to change 301?
Erdogan: I dont think it should fall completely. The article also protects the right to criticize.
SPIEGEL: After former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who was a passionate supporter of Turkey's EU accession, you now have to get along with Chancellor Angela Merkel who is currently president of the EU and has in the past said that she only supports a "privileged partnership" with Turkey. Are you satisfied with the German EU leadership under Merkel?
Erdogan: We have now passed the half-way mark. Honestly, I expected more from Germany. We have special relations that cannot be compared to any other country in Europe. There are kinships. At least 50,000 Germans live along the Turkish Riviera, and when the German national team plays, we root for Germany.
SPIEGEL: What more could you have expected? At least under the German presidency, an additional chapter has been opened in the EU accession negotiations.
Erdogan: And there was the prospect of three more chapters. But altogether there are 35! We think the pace could be much faster. Back in December
SPIEGEL: when negotiations were partially suspended because of the row with Cyprus ...
Erdogan: ... Germany could have given us greater support. The decision was very disappointing for us.
SPIEGEL: Did the fact that Turkey was not invited to attend the EU's 50th anniversary celebrations in Berlin also upset you?
Erdogan: To tell you the truth, I felt hurt about that. It wasn't really necessary. I personally do believe that it was a big mistake. It overshadows the German EU presidency. What did she get from not inviting Turkey? She could have gained a lot by inviting us. We are two countries that need each other. As political leaders we will leave our offices one day, but our people will remain and have to get along with each other. So we shouldnt give them negative messages.
SPIEGEL: The race for the influential office of the Turkish presidency begins starts this week. Will you run?
Erdogan: I haven't decided yet. I am still consulting with my party, with members of parliament and also non-government organizations. When I come back from Hanover on April 18, the AKP board will meet again. After that I will make my decision public.
SPIEGEL: The headscarf worn by your wife is said to be the biggest hurdle.
Erdogan: No, I dont think this will be an obstacle. Our constitution tells us who is eligible to be president, but there is no mention of the headscarf. That should also be an expression of religious freedom.
SPIEGEL: You make it all sound so free of conflict. But as a matter of fact, in Turkey you do have a strict headscarf ban in schools, universities and public offices. And your wife Emine doesn't get invited to receptions held by current President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.
Erdogan: In that respect injustice has been done to a lot of women, including my wife. Until we came into power, women with headscarves were invited to visit the presidents, including Sezer. But then we won the elections and he didn't invite us. There is no legal basis for this discrimination.
SPIEGEL: But didn't you promise your religious voters that you would ease the headscarf ban?
Erdogan: No. To me, that isn't a question of getting votes -- it's a question of freedom. I said we need a consensus between people in society and among the public institutions, only then can we overcome this problem. My own daughters werent able to study in Turkey because of their headscarves, so they went to the United States.
SPIEGEL: If you don't run for president, will Sezer's successor still come from your party?
Erdogan: I am sure about that. We currently have 354 seats in parliament -- this is the majority that is enough to elect the president in the third round. Why would we give that up?
SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Annette Grossbongardt and Joachim Preuss in Ankara.