Turkey gears up for Saudi-Iran proximity talks

March 8, 2016 12:14 PM (UTC+8)

 

It may seem an extremely odd time for Iran to host the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine and to schedule the meeting of their joint economic commission on Monday where a comprehensive document was signed on cooperation in the fields of agriculture, investment, oil and gas and banking.

Istanbul will host the Summit of Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul from April 10 to 15
Istanbul will host the Summit of Organization of Islamic Cooperation from April 10 to 15

Curiously, Tehran also received on that day Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov for consultations regarding Syria peace talks.

The two events throw light on the essence of Russian-Iranian alignment in Syria – a pragmatic get-together without strategic commitments on either side.

Indeed, if Russia can be aligned with Iran in the Syrian conflict while also having a deal with Israel on the ground rules of the military operations, why can’t Iran partner Ukraine?

Or, Turkey, for that matter? Indeed, Turkey is in an altogether different league than Ukraine – a NATO power, which historically rivaled Russia in the struggle for regional dominance.

The point is, three days since Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to Tehran on Saturday, it is possible to discern that his mission facilitiated some intense discussions on regional politics, especially on Syria. Moscow will be wondering what is afoot.

On Monday, after returning to Ankara, Davutoglu made a startling remark that Turkey and Iran have reached an agreement on the settlement of the Syrian issue. He said, “We don’t want Syria to be divided into smaller states and we reached an agreement with the Iranian officials that this disintegration won’t happen and that Syria would continue its life and presence as a powerful country”.

Davutoglu further said the ceasefire in Syria is still fragile, and, secondly, as regards the new political foundation in Syria, it should be representative of all Syrians and should not marginalize anyone.

The official media in Iran promptly picked up the nuanced formulations, highlighting that they mesh well with Tehran’s old peace plan on Syria.

The official news agency IRNA estimated that Davutoglu would have had “important motivations and goals” and the mission to Tehran “can be even considered as part of a bilateral and regional strategy”. It assessed:

  • At bilateral level, bolstering mutual cooperation, and at regional level, making efforts to manage the crisis in Syria and prevent its escalation are on the agenda of both sides. Consultation about controlling the existing tensions in relations between Turkey and Russia and between Iran and Saudi Arabia is another goal of his Tehran visit… Therefore, making an effort to generalize bilateral interaction in relations between Iran and Turkey to regional and multilateral levels can be considered as one of the goals of Davutoglu’s Iran visit.

The Tehran Times newspaper assessed that Davutoglu’s visit testified to the belief in Tehran and Ankara that dialogue is the way to ”iron out differences”. It noted,

  • Although a main theme of the visit was expansion of economic relations, there are at least four other key domains which can be influenced by closer ties between the two countries: the Syrian crisis, Russia-Turkey stalemate, Iran-Saudi Arabia relations, and war against terrorism and extremism.
  •  Turkey has been pursuing an ‘Assad-must-go’ policy (in Syria)… Although the paths are so divergent, it does not mean there is no third way out.
  • Given its strategic relations with Russia, Iran can be a reliable mediator to reconcile the two, and this will be possible only if Tehran and Turkey put aside their disagreements. On the other hand, Turkey can play the same role, doing some shuttle diplomacy between Riyadh and Tehran.
  •  Tehran and Ankara have most powerful armies in the region. Even the two can work out long-term schemes to help uproot terrorism in the region through political and military capacities.

During Davutoglu’s stay in Tehran, both sides voiced resentment over the involvement of outside powers in the affairs of the region. Suffice to say, there are highly significant straws in the wind.

In essence, Iran and Turkey are lamenting that the regional states are not in the driving seat in the efforts to settle regional conflicts.

Against this profound backdrop, the summit meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Istanbul on April 10-15 assumes particular significance.

The summit meeting holds the potential to bring face to face the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and King Salman of Saudi Arabia. It becomes a moment pregnant with possibilities.

As far as quarrels go in the Muslim Middle East, they erupt out of the blue and often turn nasty, but also give way most unexpectedly to extravagant eruptions of collective identity.

Rouhani has always been known to have favored rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also view him in positive light. The recent elections in Iran herald continuity in the Iranian policies for the foreseeable future.

But then, Rouhani should travel to Istanbul. On Sunday, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ibrahim Rahimpour, a veteran career diplomat, brought in a subtle pre-condition: “If Saudis are planning to cause dispute and division in the OIC Summit in Istanbul, then it will not be appropriate for us to attend the summit.”

Rahimpour added, “Foreign Minister Zarif is diligently trying to see what the final statement of the summit will be so that we will make a decision about our participation based on this information”.

He chose a radio interview to precisely put across the point.

Rahimpour (who, by the way, had visited Ankara last month for consultations)  admitted that Iran-Saudi tensions figured during Davutoglu’s talks in Tehran.

One can visualize that the OIC summit, for it to be successful, necessitates some form of Iran-Saudi ‘proximity talks’. Put differently, Rahimpour might just have voiced the expectation that Turkey would follow up in Riyadh.

Conceivably, the Kissinger in Davutoglu would have by now seen the advantages in switching tack on Turkey’s Syria policies which are in a cul-de-sac. He probably senses that the opportune moment has come to talk about a ‘regional initiative’ on Syria that dispenses with the US-Russia monopoly over conflict resolution.

Of course, Turkish President Recep Erdogan will simply relish the prospect of a grand reconciliation being staged in the ancient Ottoman capital on the Bosphoros, which once presided over vast destinies.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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