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Obama, Turkish PM Agree To Tackle Iran

  • Andrew Tully

The two leaders met at the White House

The two leaders met at the White House

U.S. President Barack Obama says he and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have agreed that one of the most important issues the two NATO allies need to resolve is Iran's nuclear program.

The two leaders met at the White House on December 7 to discuss a wide variety of issues, from Iran's nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Turkey's warming relations with Armenia.

Obama said that he indicated to Erdogan "how important it is to resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear capacity in a way that allows Iran to pursue peaceful nuclear energy but provides assurances that it will abide by international rules and norms."

He said he believed that Turkey could be an important player in trying to move Iran in that direction."

For his part, Erdogan said his country and the United States have taken joint steps on a variety of regional issues, including Iran's nuclear program, and he emphasized that he wants to ensure a diplomatic resolution to the problem.

But he added, "We do not want to see a country in our region possessing nuclear weapons and we want the countries in our region who have nuclear weapons to be rid of them."

The United States and other Western countries fear Iran's goal is to make nuclear weapons. Erdogan has said he believes Iran when it says it merely wants civil nuclear power.

Only last month, Erdogan visited Tehran to sign gas and trade deals, and he hosted Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- whom he called his "good friend" -- at a summit of Muslim countries in Istanbul.

Erdogan also has dismissed as "arrogant" UN sanctions against Iran for defying the world body by pressing forward with the nuclear program.

Obama praised Ankara for what he called its "outstanding" contribution to the NATO effort in Afghanistan. In November, Turkey -- the only majority Muslim country in the military alliance -- took command of peacekeeping operations in Kabul. Some 1,700 noncombat troops are now serving there.

Now that Washington is committing 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, it has asked NATO allies to add a total of 10,000 of their own forces. So far, Ankara has not offered to add to its force.

Karabakh Deadlock

Armenia was also on the two leaders' agenda. The country signed a historic deal with Turkey in October that could lead to the opening of their common border after nearly a century of hostility.

But Armenia is still locked in negotiations with neighboring Azerbaijan on resolving the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan.

Any problems with the Nagorno-Karabakh talks could interfere with normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey.

Obama praised Turkey for the diplomatic breakthrough for the "courageous steps that he has taken around the issue of normalizing Turkish-Armenian relations, and encouraged him to move forward along this path."

Obama offered the Turkish leader U.S. condolences for the slayings of five Turkish soldiers on December 7 in central Turkey, where members of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) are known to be active. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Obama said he and Erdogan discussed better ways to coordinate their efforts coordination against the PKK, which for more than 30 years has been fighting Turkey in the country's southeast, near the border with Iraq.

"We have stated before, and I have reaffirmed since I came into office, that the United States considers PKK a terrorist organization, and that the threat that it poses -- not only in Turkey but also in Iraq -- is one that is of deep concern," Obama said.

"And as NATO allies, we are bound to help each other defend our territories."

As for the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Turkey has served as a mediator of sorts in the Middle East, especially with Israel's Arab neighbors. But Erdogan has been publicly outspoken about his disagreements with Israeli policy, especially its military response a year ago to repeated Palestinian rocket attacks against nearby Israeli villages.

In the past, Ankara occasionally has been an effective mediator between the West and Muslim countries because of Turkey's unique geographical position and its status as a predominantly Muslim country in a Western alliance.

But Erdogan has ended all that, according to James Phillips, who studies Middle Eastern security issues at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy research center in Washington.

"Erdogan has seriously eroded Turkey's traditional role as a bridge between East and West, in part because his own rhetoric essentially is anti-Western," Phillips said.

"Moreover, he has stepped up criticism not only of the U.S. but of Israel, and that's cast doubt on Turkey's traditional role as an intermediary."

The reason, Phillips tells RFE/RL, is that Erdogan is a member of the Justice and Development Party, an Islamist faction of Turkish politics. He recalls that there were concerns about Erdogan and the party when it won a majority of seats in the Turkish parliament in 2003.

Phillips says those concerns have now become reality. He says he believes that Turkey can no longer be seen as the honest broker that it once was either for the Middle East peace process or Iran and its nuclear program as long as Erdogan's party remains in power.

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