Turkey and Iran: the road through Damascus and the nuclear issue
The divergence over Syria will affect the future of Turkey-Iran relations and Turkey's mediation efforts on nuclear talks.
By Enis Erdem Aydin for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 13/04/12
Tehran's last minute decision on Istanbul as the venue for the first round of nuclear talks scheduled for Saturday (April 14th) adds to Turkey's sought after position as a mediator, but disagreement over Syria's future raises doubts over its sustainability.
Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (right) welcomes Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi before their meeting in Ankara on January 18th. [Reuters]
Turkey and Iran have mostly reacted to the recent developments in the Arab world in a similar fashion. Despite a brief split over Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's remarks in Egypt stressing secularism, both governments have expressed support for the popular protests in the Arab world, albeit for different reasons.
The rhetoric, however, took a sharp turn as events in Syria unfolded.
After pressing for an end to violence and reform last summer, Turkey took a hard stance against Syria, becoming one of the regime's harshest critics while supporting the Syrian opposition and organising an international response to the crisis. Iran meanwhile continues to express support for its long-standing regional ally Syria and vests hope in political reforms under Assad's leadership.
Despite this divergence, Turkey has continued its mediation efforts between Iran and the 5+1 (Britain, France, the US, China and Russia plus Germany) on the Iranian nuclear issue, as both countries sped up the process through a series of diplomatic visits since early 2012.
However, Erdogan's last visit on March 28th sparked the most controversy. Despite the positive atmosphere of the visit and a preliminary agreement on Istanbul as the venue for nuclear talks, Iran changed its initial preference to Damascus or Baghdad.
Erdogan's remarks on the "insincerity" of Iranian diplomacy was criticised by several top Iranian officials, including the head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian Parliament, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who hinted at Ankara's policy on Syria behind Tehran's decision.
Indeed, on April 1st the Turkish government hosted in Istanbul the Conference of the Group of Friends of the Syrian People, a group of 82 countries that recognised the opposition Syrian National Council as a "legitimate representative" of all Syrians.
Top Iranian officials such as Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani were quick to dismiss the conference as "enemies of the Syrian people", further straining relations. Last week both countries' ambassadors worked to calm the atmosphere.
It was under these developments that Tehran opted for the Istanbul meeting on April 14th, while the second round, conditional on the conference's success, will be held in Baghdad in the coming months.
According to Mustafa Ellabbad, director of Cairo-based Al Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies, "The dynamics in and over Syria, and the higher stakes adopted by Turkey there means that the period of mediation with minimal costs is over."
"Turkey is entering a period of clear competition with Iran and not mediation anymore," he says, adding that "Iran will not give Turkey a reward for its stance towards Syria."
However, there are experts who disagree with Ellabbad, pointing out that Iran has limited opportunities to deal with its nuclear problems as sanctions and military threats mount.
One of them, Bahram Amirahmadian, an Iranian analyst of Turkey, told SES Türkiye that "Iran is going to be more realistic than before, so Iran and Turkey should employ their capacities to co-operate."
Turkish foreign policy experts like Mensur Akgun, the TESEV think-tank foreign policy programme adviser, also argue that Turkey and Iran will find ways to work together on issues of mutual interest.
"It seems that Iran will distinguish the Syrian and the nuclear issues. The fact that the nuclear talks will be held in Istanbul in the following days is a sign of that," he said.
In May 2010, Turkey, Brazil and Iran signed a nuclear fuel swap deal, which was not endorsed by the 5+1. In January 2011, Turkey hosted a conference between Iran and the 5+1 on the Iranian nuclear issue. The recent attempt has been on table since October 2011.