Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Turkey Back in the Middle?

Is Turkey getting back into the Middle East mediation game after the Davos detour it took a few weeks ago? As the Los Angeles Times reports:
Turkey's foreign minister arrived in Tehran on Monday for a long-scheduled economic summit amid speculation that his government could help open diplomatic contacts between Iran and the United States.

Foreign Minister Ali Babacan arrived in the Iranian capital to attend the annual Economic Cooperation Organization summit just days after discussing Iran with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"The term 'mediation' is used at times," Babacan told reporters in Ankara, the Turkish capital, before departing for Iran, according to the Turkish newspaper Sabah. "This will only be realized if a concrete request is made by both sides. We could contribute to the furthering of relations between the two nations to a positive level."
Today’s Zaman adds a bit more:
Ankara is not currently involved in mediation per se, but Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said Turkey would consider requests by the two sides to serve as a mediator. He was speaking before departing for Tehran to attend a regional meeting late on Sunday, a day after Clinton had talks in Ankara. In televised remarks on Saturday, Clinton said the United States would ask Turkey to help push forward President Obama's plan to engage Iran. Iran earlier said it had sought Turkey's assistance in talks with the United States.

Babacan was expected to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, in addition to other Iranian leaders in Tehran. Talks are expected to gain momentum when President Abdullah Gül visits Tehran today to attend a summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). Turkish sources have confirmed that Gül will also meet with Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while in Tehran.
But a report by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, asks if Teheran – no slouch when it comes to diplomacy – is really interested in having Turkey serve as a meditator for any possible opening with the U.S.:
….requesting Turkish mediation would harm Iran's self-proclaimed role of being a regional power. If Turkey successfully convinced Iran and the United States to begin negotiations, it would make Ankara and Tehran competitors for the role of regional power. Such a peace agreement would make Turkey appear as an absolute regional power while Iran would seem to be jumping on the Turkish bandwagon. For this reason, Iran would not want Turkey to be the peace broker and the policy maker of the region, however necessary it might be. Tehran would want direct talks with the United States only if it would clearly serve Iran's national interests. If direct negotiations with the U.S. should ever take place, however, Iran might want Turkey to be "the plumber"; whenever the diplomatic "pipes" became clogged, Turkey could be there silently waiting to reopen the blocked channel but not to act as mediator.

If, however, Iran feels further isolated from the rest of the world, it might engage Turkey in a mediatory role. Another possibility would be for the Obama administration to ask Turkey to test the waters to determine whether Iran would want to open negotiations. In that case, Iran might accept Turkey's services.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan already offered the new Obama administration Turkey’s services as a mediator with Iran back in November. I wrote about the proposal at the time for Eurasianet, and found that many experts believed that bringing Turkey on board as a mediator would be a tough sell in both Washington and Tehran. From my article:
….even if the Obama administration does try to engage Iran, some experts believe that US officials would not be inclined to do so via a third-party. "Opening a dialogue is something the United States is going to do itself. It’s not going to look for an interlocutor, no matter how closely allied. This is a different beast. This isn’t Israel and Syria," said Ian Lesser, a Washington-based Turkey expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "I don’t think an Obama administration will be looking to Turkey as a vehicle for this."

Meanwhile, the signals coming out of Tehran -- about both the question of talking to the United States and Turkey’s role as a mediator -- have been mixed.

"People who put on a mask of friendship, but with the objective of betrayal, and who enter from the angle of negotiations without preconditions, are more dangerous," Hossein Taeb, deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, recently said, according to the country’s semiofficial Mehr News Agency.

"The power holders in the new American government are trying to regain their lost influence with a tactical change in their foreign diplomacy. They are shifting from a hard conflict to a soft attack," Taeb said.

Commenting recently about Erdogan’s mediation offer, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi didn’t exactly give the Turks an unqualified green light to go ahead. "We will certainly not raise any obstacles," the spokesman said during a news conference. "But the reality is that the issues and problems between Iran and the United states go beyond the usual political problems between two countries."
[UPDATE -- Reuters reports that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has shot down the idea of Turkey serving as a bridge between his country and the U.S.:
"There is no need for mediation," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters after talks in Tehran with regional leaders including Turkish President Abdullah Gul.

"Our stances our clear: if there is justice and respect no issue would remain in the world," he said.]

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