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Analysis From Washington - A Tangled Triangle In Southwest Asia

Washington, 20 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Expanding bilateral ties between Russia and Turkey, Russia and Iran, and Iran and Turkey are transforming the geopolitics of the Middle East and sending shock waves across the entire international community.

This trend has been developing for some time, but it was highlighted this week by three high-level consultations between these pairs of states. In every case, the two sides have been talking primarily about expanding economic links.

But in no case did the parties ignore bilateral or even multilateral security issues.

The recent expansion of Russian-Turkish ties is especially striking. During a three-day visit to Moscow this week, Ankara's foreign minister Tansu Ciller announced that Turkey would dramatically increase its purchases of Russian natural gas, from six billion cubic meters a year now to 33 billion cubic meters a year in the future.

But even more significantly, the two countries agreed to cooperate on fighting terrorism, an agreement with consequences for the Kurds and the countries of the Caucasus, and on dealing with Iraq, where both oppose the U.S.-supported embargo.

And perhaps most important of all Ciller said that Turkey would not support any expansion of NATO if it threatened Russia, a clear retreat from its past open support of the growth of the Western alliance.

So pleased was the Russian foreign ministry by her remarks that its spokesman claimed that the two countries now agreed on "the inadmissibility of the creation of new demarcation lines in post-confrontation Europe." Clearly, Moscow hopes that Turkey will help Russia on this issue as well.

The recent expansion of Russian-Iranian ties is less dramatic -- it has been proceeding apace for several years -- but equally fateful. In one step forward, Russian officials announced this week that Moscow and Tehran have agreed to increase their bilateral trade from $400 million a year now to $4 billion a year by the year 2000.

And this Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov is set to visit Tehran for three days of high-level meetings and thus consolidate Russian ties with one of the leading rogue states in the Middle East.

The Iranian media this week have described these upcoming sessions as having "great significance" for both countries. And the Russian ambassador in Tehran indicated that they would be about political questions: resolving the conflicts in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, dealing with Iraq, and resolving the status of the Caspian Sea.

On each of these, Moscow clearly views Iran as a useful ally to expand its own influence throughout the region, and Iran equally clearly sees its ties with Moscow as helping it to break out of the diplomatic isolation that the United States has attempted to impose upon it.

Even if the two do not find common language on all issues, such joint actions will inevitably undercut Western and especially American influence in the Middle East and may contribute to further instability there.

And that pattern is both reflected and reinforced by the warming ties between Iran and Turkey, an expansion that is very much on view as Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani visits Ankara this week.

Prior to the Iranian leader's arrival, Turkish Prime Minister Necmetting Erbakan said that he wanted to dramatically expand Ankara's ties with Tehran. In addition to increasing the level of bilateral trade, Erbakan said that he hoped to increase cooperation in the military industry field, despite the opposition of the Turkish army and Western governments.

Dismissing such objections, Erbakan pointedly noted that such ties were in the interest of both countries and the prerogative of Turkey as an independent country. "Being a member of NATO is one thing," he said; "developing industry in the national interests is another."

Such statements have become a staple of Turkish politics since an Islamicist party took power there earlier this year. But they are increasingly having real consequences. In addition to a gas deal with Iran that the West opposed, Turkey last week broke with its Western allies by voting against a UN resolution condemning Iran for human rights abuses.

Neither singly nor together, however, do these developments mean that Turkey has been detached from the West or that Russia, Iran, and Turkey have formed an implicit security alliance on top of their economic links.

But both singly and together they suggest that the balance of power in the Middle East has fundamentally shifted. And this shift in the Middle East is certain to affect the balance of power in other regions as well.