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Turkey's Status Buoyed As Six Powers, Iran Arrive In Istanbul

  • Robert Tait

Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ink a nuclear-fuel-swap deal in Tehran in May. Does Turkey's role in talks on Iran's nuclear program boost its prestige in the region?

Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ink a nuclear-fuel-swap deal in Tehran in May. Does Turkey's role in talks on Iran's nuclear program boost its prestige in the region?

Turkey's yearning for recognition as a vital player on the global stage will reach fulfillment today as Iran and six world powers gather in the apt setting of Istanbul for the latest leg of the byzantine negotiating process over Tehran's suspect nuclear program.

The relatively staid setting of Geneva -- the venue for two previous rounds of talks -- is being swapped for the banks of the Bosporus, the famous waterway that divides Istanbul into European and Asian halves and serves as a symbol of the city's totemic status as a gateway between East and West.

But a gathering of the so-called P5+1 -- permanent United Nations Security Council members China, Britain, France, Russia, and the United States, plus Germany -- and Iran's nuclear negotiating team against the awe-inspiring backdrop of Istanbul's former Ottoman palaces and domed mosques may be more than mere symbolism.

While the two-day talks are expected to be no more successful than previous attempts at breaking the nuclear impasse, choosing the capital of the former Ottoman empire as a venue represents a minor victory for Iran and a major boost in status for Turkey, says Huseyin Bagci, head of international relations at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

"Istanbul is better than Geneva to talk. The whole atmosphere, it is like a home game for Iran to have it in Turkey so they can also publicize through the Turkish public as well as to the world public that they can do it in Turkey, on a territory, a place where Iran entertains good relations," Bagci says.

"And I think the consequence for Turkey will be not bad. On the contrary, it will increase the prestige of Turkey as an arbitrator or honest broker, so this is good for Turkey I think."

Is Turkey Trustworthy?


Western negotiators had previously rejected Iranian requests to stage meetings in Istanbul, suspecting Turkey's neutrality on the nuclear issue because of its burgeoning ties with Iran, despite Ankara's status as a member of NATO.

These suspicions were further heightened in May 2010 when Turkey, along with Brazil, brokered a nuclear-fuel-exchange deal that the United States rejected as inadequate and as a ruse by Iran to forestall further sanctions.

Turkey subsequently voted against a fourth round of punitive measures adopted by the UN Security Council over Iran's refusal to suspend its uranium-enrichment program, which many in the West suspect is aimed at bomb making despite Tehran's insistence that it is for peaceful purposes.

That episode -- together with a bitter row with Israel over the deaths in May of nine Turks in a botched commando raid on a Turkish aid ship, the "Mavi Marmara," bound for Gaza -- prompted recriminations among Western policymakers over who "lost Turkey."

According to Hugh Pope, Turkey director with the International Crisis Group, the Istanbul talks show that such concerns have been set aside, if not entirely erased.

"The fact that it is [in] Istanbul and that Turkey is going to have a role is acknowledgement that it was a little unfair, the brouhaha that went out against Turkey and certainly it's wrong to see Turkey as having turned away from the West or becoming an ally of Islamist Iran," Pope says.

"The fact that people are reaching out to Turkey, by allowing the meeting to take place in Istanbul, shows that people want to keep Turkey as a partner as much as they can."

Having A Say In Talks


While officials stress that Turkey will have no direct role in the talks, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been promoting his country's credentials as a possible interlocutor in the nuclear dispute for several years.

The English-language "Hurriyet Daily News" quoted a diplomatic source as saying that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu would not get involved "unless he is asked to." However, the paper assessed the chances of Davutoglu's nonparticipation as "very slight."

Selim Yenel, deputy undersecretary at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, defines Turkey as a neutral "facilitator" in the talks but says the country, which has flourishing trade ties with Iran, has a direct stake in the nuclear dispute.

"We are the primarily concerned country on this matter because we are neighbors of Iran and we don't want Iran to have nuclear weapons either. If that happens, we will be the first one to be affected," Yenel says.

But Yenel says Turkey is against sanctions on Iran because sanctions "have a direct effect on Turkey as well. So we are looking for a diplomatic solution. We feel that this is the only way out. We see that sanctions have not worked in the past so we don't think that is a viable solution.

"Yes, sanctions could hurt Iran and maybe they are hurting them. But nevertheless, we don't think that this will change their policies. We believe that diplomacy is the only way to find a solution. We have to bring the two sides together, so this is our goal."

Matter Of National Prestige

With no one expecting a breakthrough, a favorable result for Turkey might be an agreement to hold further meetings -- preferably on Turkish soil, thus allowing it greater influence on the ultimate outcome. Turkey's key fear, Pope says, is a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities sparking a war that could adversely affect its own status in the Middle East.

"For Turkey, the imminent threat is if there is military action against Iran, there will be a real new round of chaos in the region," Pope says, "the assumption being of course that Iran would take revenge through its proxies either in Lebanon against Israel or in Iraq against the established government in Iraq, which would be hugely disruptive to Turkish interests and set back everything they've been trying to do in the Middle East for years."

But even short of that vital strategic goal, staging this week's talks meets another Turkish aim -- boosting national prestige. Nevertheless, says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey specialist at the London-based Chatham House think tank, realizing it does not guarantee the success of the Erdogan-Davutoglu objective of achieving great-power status.

"One critical aspect of Turkish foreign policy is prestige maximization. Turkey wants to project the image that it is an indispensible power, both for Arab countries, for Iran and also for Washington and European countries," Hakura says. "But in reality, it's one thing to host an event. For example, Switzerland has hosted a number of meetings between the P5+1 and Iran. That doesn't translate into the fact that Switzerland is a major player on the international scene."

According to Pope, the conference represents the latest attempt by Erdogan and Davutoglu to use the "glitz and glamour" of Istanbul to project Turkey onto the world stage. But its success may depend on how far Turkey strays from its traditional role as a Western ally.

"As long as Turkey stays within a consensus and sticks to the broad goals of its traditional and Western allies, then it always does push its prestige up. The problem comes when it stops talking carefully with its Western partners and it gets into fights in the region," Pope says.

"For instance the 'Mavi Marmara' incident last year, where by a series of accidents, a very good relationship with Israel turned into a very bad relationship, with huge consequences for Turkey and Washington and Brussels. As long as Turkey plays its cards carefully, I think that Turkey is an undersold story still and there are lot of roads now that do lead to Istanbul."
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