TURKEY CAN BRIDGE THE US-IRAN DIVIDE
By Manik Mehta
Aug 4 2008
United Arab Emirates
Turkey’s relations with the US went through a rollercoaster,
last October, when the US Congress passed a resolution on Armenia,
describing the killings of Armenians during the First World War in
the Ottoman empire as "genocide". This had angered Istanbul which
was already riled by the war in Iraq from where the Kurdish Workers’
Party (PKK) launched attacks on Turkey.
However, US-Turkish relations considerably improved, particularly after
the warm welcome to Turkish President Abdullah Gul during his visit
to Washington earlier this year. The ensuing strategic cooperation
between the two sides is a manifestation of what Gul called a "new
chapter" in bilateral relations.
Although Turkish public opinion is unfavourable against the US, the
strategic cooperation has, meanwhile, resuscitated the relationship
between the two Nato partners. Kurdish nationalism is Ankara’s
Achilles’ heel; it has brought Turkey closer to Iran which has its own
Kurdish problem and has found a common cause with Turkey. Additionally,
both sides have a vibrant trading and economic relationship.
While critics fear that closer Turkish-Iranian ties will
have ramifications for US-Turkish relations, others see an
opportunity. Turkey’s close ties with Iran should be used to persuade
the latter to renounce its nuclear programme which is causing a lot of
concern to the US and, particularly, Israel which has been the target
of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s belligerent outbursts.
US-Turkish contacts have recently intensified on Iran’s nuclear
programme. President George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser,
Stephen Hadley, met Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan in July
in Ankara – just before Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki
arrived in Turkey – to send, apparently, a carrot-and-stick message on
Iran’s nuclear programme. Subsequently, US and Iranian representatives
met, for the first time in three decades, at the six-nation meeting
in Geneva to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme.
Indeed, Mottaki sounded unusually conciliatory, even calling
the presence of Undersecretary of State William Burns, the third
senior-most American diplomat, at the talks as "a new positive
approach". Turkey has apparently played a quiet role in Mottaki’s
moderate reaction which was a far cry from Ahmadinejad’s fiery
rhetoric. Though glaring fundamental differences between the two
will persist, an atmospheric improvement, with some help from Turkey,
could bring both sides on "talking terms".
Iran’s testing of two separate rounds of long-range ballistic missiles
in early July has also unnerved not only the United States and Israel,
but also the Gulf Arab states. The missile firing was intended to send
different messages to different audiences. The missile tests warn the
West that Iran, which has strengthened its presence in the Strait of
Hormuz, could target oil shipments from the Arabian Gulf ports and deal
a crippling blow to the Western and also the oil-driven Arab economies.
They were also aimed to silence Iran’s domestic critics, frustrated
with the regime’s ruinous economic policies, by whipping up nationalist
fervour and take the wind out of the critics’ sail.
According to some American strategists, Turkey would be willing
to bring about the rapprochement between the US and Iran, and thus
prevent a military conflict. On the other hand, the hardcore Iranian
leadership would prefer making concessions on the nuclear issue to
Muslim Turkey rather than directly to the US.
Indeed, some Americans argue that by allowing it a face-saving
withdrawal, Iran could be persuaded to eventually abandon its
nuclear programme. The Iranian people desperately want an end to the
West-backed sanctions against their country which is treated like a
pariah at every international venue because of their unpopular regime.
Indeed, the regime knows this and also the fact that it will not
be able to stop for long the tide of public disenchantment with its
dogmatic attitude. This is a good time for the US to take more Turkish
help and resolve the stalemate with Iran.