Difficult diplomacy with Iran
Despite the positive outcome of nuclear talks in Istanbul, the Turkey-Iran rift continues to deepen, as some experts are now talking about a ‘cold war’ in the region.
By Ayhan Simsek for SES Türkiye in Ankara -- 17/04/12
World powers and Iran agreed in Istanbul last weekend to engage in serious and constructive negotiations to reach a diplomatic solution regarding Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. But the agreement did not resolve the growing rift between Ankara and Tehran, sparked by the crisis in Syria, and further put into question Turkey’s future role in Iran nuclear talks.
Turkey Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (right) welcomes Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili before their meeting in Istanbul on Saturday (April 14th). [Reuters]
"We very much welcome the outcome of the meeting," Turkey Foreign Ministry spokesperson Selçuk Ünal told SES Türkiye. "We have tried our best. As long as the parties would like to have our assistance, we are ready to continue our positive contribution to this process."
For years, Turkey played a "facilitator" role in talks between the world powers and Iran on a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis. At times Turkey backed Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy and did not support Western sanctions, which risked jeopardising its relations with its allies. But recently, Ankara's relations with Tehran have cooled due to the disagreements on Syria.
As the Turkish government took a clear stance against the Assad regime, some Iranian officials publicly criticised Turkey, expressing a lack of confidence towards Ankara’s policies. Only days before the Istanbul nuclear talks, some high-ranking Iranian officials disputed the venue, suggesting Damascus or Baghdad as alternative sites.
In response, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly criticised Iranian officials for being insincere by suggesting the venues. Now, Turkish officials are down playing the controversy and signal that Turkey seeks to continue its efforts to bring a positive contribution to the process.
"During our months-long contacts between the parties, Turkey’s priority has never been the venue of the talks. Our main goal has always been the restart of the nuclear talks, as soon as possible," Ünal said.
According to Arif Keskin, a noted expert on Turkey-Iran relations at the Ankara-based 21st Century Institute, it is not possible to talk about "one Iran," as the state establishment is divided among moderates and conservatives.
"It seems that Turkey's efforts and policies are not credited among some hawkish conservative groups," Keskin told SES Türkiye. "But moderates, reform-minded pragmatist politicians, are aware of Turkey's positive role and they are supporting that."
Turkish observers say that most of the anti-Turkey rhetoric in Iran derives from domestic political concerns, as some politicians are trying to appeal to the establishment, seek the support of the politically strong Mullahs or the Revolutionary Guards.
During the meeting in Istanbul, all sides agreed to meet in Baghdad on May 23rd to discuss the details of urgent steps by Iran to build confidence on its nuclear programme, and its compliance with international obligations. Turkey's role in the future of these talks remains uncertain.
"For the first time in a decade, I see a positive atmosphere and a political will on the Iranian side to reach a solution on the nuclear problem," Keskin said. "Turkey's role and contributions, in reaching this level is undeniable."
He said that parties should find a modality and include Turkey in the next round of meetings. "In fact, Turkey has already become a part of this process. Turkey's participation is important for further progress in these talks. Turkey is a good facilitator, with good understanding of the concerns of both sides and its extensive knowledge and experience of the nuclear problem."
According to Turkish diplomats, Turkey's participation in the Baghdad talks is not foreseen, as it is not a negotiating party in P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) talks. But diplomats say Ankara is keen to continue its efforts, depending on the requests of the parties.
Future developments in the Syria crisis are expected to shape Iran’s approach to Turkey. But experts stress that the rift between Turkey and Iran started long before the Syria crisis, and it is likely to further deepen in the near future.
"In fact, the centuries-long history of relations between Turkey and Iran has always been characterised as relations of both competition and co-operation," said Professor Çağrı Erhan of Ankara University. "The current problem of confidence between the two countries is not just started with the Syria crisis. It goes back to 2008, to the disagreements on Iraq."
According to Erhan, Iran’s sectarian policies, its support of Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and his controversial sectarian policies had long been a source of concern for Turkey. With the Syria crisis, and Iran's strong support for Assad regime, this problem reached a new level.
In a key speech last month, Turkey Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu expressed concerns over a sectarian cold war in the Middle East. "We will not allow another cold war in our region," Davutoğlu said. "We do not want a sectarian cold war in the region."
But Erhan believes this cold war has already started. "New rival blocs have emerged in the region," Erhan said. "On the one hand, there is the axis of Iran, Iraq's Maliki-led government, Syria's Assad regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon. On the other hand, there is the axis of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Today, we are witnessing the reflections of deepening tensions between these two blocs."
According to Erhan, Turkey's strong efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear crisis is mainly aimed at preventing a military conflict, which would change the current “cold war” climate into a catastrophe. "If Israel would decide to launch military operations against Iran’s nuclear facilities, it would be a disaster," he warned. "If Iran would respond, that would bring even a larger disaster. This military conflict would not be limited to two countries and is likely to expand to other countries in the region."
Erhan believes the future of the region will be dependent on Iran's next steps regarding its nuclear programme, and policies towards the neighbouring region.
"Turkey has taken important steps, initiatives to avoid military conflicts in the region, to develop good relations with Iran. Ankara did this even at the expense of risking jeopardising its relations with the Western world," he said. "But unfortunately Iran is pursuing an unconstructive policy since 2008. My impression is that, if Iran doesn’t change this approach soon, it will be highly unlikely for Turkey to continue its current policy."