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    Middle East
     Apr 3, 2012

Iran still coy on Turkey's overtures
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts - Despite a strong personal pitch by the visiting Turkish premier last week to hold the next round of Iran nuclear talks in Istanbul, Tehran is still ambivalent and may opt for an alternative venue.

Although the talks are tentatively scheduled for mid-April, as the time of writing there has been no official announcement regarding the venue, even though Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, in his meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his personal view that Istanbul was "the best place" to hold the multilateral talks between Iran and the "Iran Six" nations (UN Security Council's permanent five - the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and China - plus Germany).

The fact that Erdogan's trip was followed by Turkey's announcement that it was complying with Western energy


sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program and was thus reducing its oil imports from Iran by 20%, coinciding with opposite expressions by countries such as China and Pakistan, has certainly added to Iran's ambivalence.

This is not to mention Iran's misgivings about Turkey's anti-Damascus stance, the threat of military action in Syria together with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces, as well as Turkey's embrace of an anti-Iran radar system, all of which have inevitably introduced uncomfortable thorns in Iran-Turkey relations.
As a result, no matter Erdogan's latest heroics regarding Israel's nuclear arsenal and his expression of support for Iran's civilian nuclear program, the political apprehensions and concerns about Turkey's regional intentions are becoming cemented in Iran. Even if Tehran agrees to hold the talks in Istanbul, this would be an uncomfortable decision taken with a good deal of reluctance.

By holding the Iran talks, Turkey seeks to replicate its efforts in the Syrian crisis, where it plays host to the "Friends of Syria" international group opposed to the year-long suppression of protest by President Bashar al-Assad. In it most recent meeting, representatives of the 70-plus nations comprising the group recognized the Syrian National Council, the largest opposition body, as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people and the opposition as a whole.

The group also called for a halt to all support for the Syrian government, with an emphasis on weapons and ammunitions - an implicit criticism of Iran, among other countries, for backing Assad.

From Turkey's vantage point, its leaders' public stance against an Israeli strike on Iran serves to remind Iran of Turkey's invaluable neighborly input in the ongoing nuclear crisis. At a time when US officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are trying to maximize pre-talks pressure by warning that the "window of diplomacy will not remain open indefinitely" - a veiled military threat - the Turkish antidote of warning of dire regional consequences of a war with Iran certainly has timely value.

But, by the same token, the same pronouncements have the unintended consequence of heightening concerns about an imminent attack on Iran over fears it is building nuclear weapons, which is highly unlikely given the deleterious implications in terms of threats to oil flowing from the Persian Gulf and, indeed, the health of the global economy.

Instead of putting the accent on an unlikely war, if Erdogan is really Iran's friend, he should have prioritized the economic warfare being waged against Iran and taken proactive steps to distance his country from it. By going along with the oil embargo, albeit in an incremental fashion, Turkey has proved that it values its loyalty to the Western bloc over good neighborly relations with Iran.

Therefore, it would be a mistake for Tehran to reward Turkey's oil announcement by holding the nuclear talks in Istanbul. Ankara should take its cue on Iran from Beijing, Islamabad and Moscow, that is, countries that have resisted Western bullying, instead of bowing to Washington and Tel Aviv.

Under laws aimed at pressing Iran over its nuclear program - which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes - the US will penalize foreign financial institutions over transactions with Iran's central bank, which handles sales of oil.

Turkey needs a reminder from Iran that it does not appreciate Janus-faced diplomacy than sends a contradictory signal towards a reliable energy and trade partner.

Lest we forget, In Seoul two weeks ago, prior to visiting Tehran, Erdogan in his meeting with US President Barack Obama reiterated his government's "joining the US" on Iran, a pledge he fulfilled by the above-mentioned announcement regarding the Turkish curb on oil imports from Iran.

Even while in Tehran, Erdogan displayed his bifurcated approach by expressing support for Iran's nuclear program and, simultaneously, raising concerns about a nuclear arms race in the region - this from a leader of a country that has hosted a number of US nuclear bombs on its territory for decades.

Indeed, it appears that much like during the Cold War, when Turkey reaped the benefits of being a "frontline state", today in the new context of the Iran nuclear crisis and regional alignments along pro- and anti-West fault lines, Ankara is seeking to carve out a profitable niche for itself that procures sustainable dependency from both sides.

The trouble with this Turkish perspective is that it is built on a house of illusions, the fanciful thought that somehow other countries will forgive Turkey's sailing along in the US-led ship of hegemonic and coercive policies in the region, simply because Turkey has mastered the art of diplomatic double-speak.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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