Ankara's Iran gambit

By Semih Idiz

Iran, it seems, is going to turn into one of the main litmus tests of exactly how influential Turkey has become in the region.

Ankara is in an uncomfortable position in this respect. If it does not manage to bring Tehran around to a reasonable position on the uranium-enrichment issue, it runs the risk of being isolated among its allies.

On the other hand, if Iran decides to listen to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu when he visits Tehran to discuss this matter over the next days, it will be a major coup for him and his “proactive foreign policy.” Few, however, are expecting a major breakthrough.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement that he has ordered 20 percent uranium enrichment does not provide a good sign in this respect. There is some evidence that Tehran may not have the capacity to do this at the moment, if one is to go by some Western press reports. The point is not this, however.

The point is that Iran insists on playing a dangerously defiant game. And this is happening regardless of the extremely friendly exhortations from Turkey, which today acts more like an advocate of that country against the West than a neutral nation trying to broker an understanding between the two sides.

mahmoud-ahmadinejadIt is this attitude of Turkey’s that has complicated the country’s own position. Put simply, by cozying up to the increasingly despotic Ahmadinejad regime – and many argue this is due to feelings of Islamic solidarity – the Turkish government has undermined its chances for mediation with regard to this topic.

Put plainly, Davutoğlu will be on a one-way mission when he visits Iran in the sense that there is little bargaining the West is prepared to do over Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity. The only bargaining, if any is still possible, will have to center on the modalities of the “uranium swap” formula proposed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, whereby Tehran hands over its uranium to a third party and in return receives the amount of enriched uranium it needs for medical purposes.

The problem here, however, is that Iran is not prepared to do this, regardless of some ambiguous remarks coming from Tehran that it may partially accept this proposal. For example, it has signaled that it may hand over some of its uranium to a country such as France, Russia or Turkey.

But this is a false position, since it defeats the purpose if any uranium that can be enriched remains in Iran’s hands and beyond the control of monitors. Davutoğlu’s mission to Tehran, then, is basically to try and convince the administration there on this score, rather than help it negotiate with the West on the core issue of uranium enrichment.

erdoganForeign Minister Davutoğlu will therefore be more of a messenger of the West’s when he visits Iran, which is a position that Tehran will not be pleased with since it wants Ankara to remain its advocate against the West, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been for some time now.

There are commentators, this one included, however, who believe Iran is using Turkey’s support to its advantage in this general equation – but is not actually willing to listen to Ankara’s exhortations that it be less intransigent in dealing with the West on the nuclear issue.

Another fact that will put Turkey in a tough spot will be the question of U.N. sanctions if and when these come up in the Security Council, where Ankara currently holds a seat.

The last time the question of Iran was voted on at the IAEA in Vienna, Ankara abstained from condemning Tehran, and thus found itself in a minority led by China and mostly including small and marginal states.

It is almost a given that Ankara will do the same again in the Security Council and will again act with a minority rather than with its allies. Turkish diplomats argue, of course, that this is necessary if Turkey is to remain in a position of dialogue with Iran, which they say is to the advantage of Ankara’s Western allies.

Speaking openly, most Western diplomats argue there may be a point to this. Most, however, also reflect serious skepticism about Ankara’s ability to bring Tehran in line with the desires of the West.

Privately, on the other hand, many question whether Turkey’s likely abstention in the U.N. will be because of this, or because of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP’s, natural inclination to support a country with an Islamic regime.

This is an open question, and one can answer it either way. It is a fact, however, that when it comes to issues such as Israel and Sudan, the AKP’s antipathies and sympathies based on its Islamic outlook have been on parade.

Then there is the moral support that the AKP is continuing to give the regime in Iran, despite the increasingly brutal methods – including executions – that it is resorting to domestically against the opposition.

It must be recalled here as an aside that Turkey was among the first and few countries to congratulate Mr. Ahmadinejad following his controversial reelection, which is still reverberating in that country.

DavutoğluAll of this explains why Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s mission to Tehran will be critical and represent a litmus test for his own foreign-policy administration. After all, he is the principal author of the argument about Turkey’s rising influence in the Middle East.

So far, however, this influence has brought few results, whether these be between Israel and Syria, Hamas and the PLO or otherwise. So if he can not produce any results on Iran, this will not be a surprise for the majority of Western diplomats this writer knows in Ankara.

It is clear, however, that this outcome will also tarnish Turkey’s image as a rising regional power that can play a key role between the West and Islamic countries. The stakes, therefore, are higher for Ankara in this gambit than first meets the eye.
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