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Iran/Turkey: United In Distrust Of Taliban

Prague, 14 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- After years of discord and mutual suspicion, Turkey and Iran set aside their disagreement on Israel and begun defrosting their recently frigid relations.

The warm-up took place over the weekend in Tehran, where Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem held talks with President Mohammad Khatami as well as with Kamal Kharrazi, his Iranian counterpart. Both Cem and Khatami publicly acknowledged differences between the two countries, particularly over Turkey's military cooperation with Israel. But Cem nevertheless urged what he called an "expansion of bilateral ties," while Khatami was quoted by the Iranian press as having told Cem that "the security of Turkey and Iran are one and the same."

Perhaps most important in bringing about a measure of rapprochement between the area's two major non-Arab Islamic nations is their common distrust of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia. According to Iran's official news agency, Cem told Kharrazi Saturday that the recent killing of nine Iranian diplomats by the Taliban was what he described as a "savage act," and that Afghanistan had become a factor for instability in the region. The same day, Iran's state radio spoke of what it called "Turkey's positive stance (on) the martyrdom of Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan (which) reinforces Tehran-Ankara ties."

A senior military official, Medhi Chamran (Chief of the Sacred Defense Committee), said today that Iran's armed forces were now on full alert and would soon have 270,000 troops deployed on the country's rugged eastern border with Afghanistan. Chamran's remarks came after confirmation that the Sunni Muslim Taliban had captured the northern Afghan city of Bamiyan from a pro-Iranian Shiite group (Hezb-i-Wahdat). Bamiyan had been one of the remaining Afghan towns outside Taliban control.

Turkey is 1,500 kilometers from the Afghan border. But its secular government sees the Taliban's religious fervor as a threat to the Turkic sphere of influence Ankara has sought to establish in Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. Turkey's secular political establishment, combating a strong but much tamer Islamic movement at home, has now replaced Iran's mullahs with Taliban purists as its favorite bogeymen. Turkish foreign-policy analyst Sami Kohen told the English-language "Turkish Daily News" Saturday that "an extremist religious regime in Afghanistan which has an eye on exporting its revolution is disturbing to Turkey's own internal dynamics."

Even so, Foreign Minister Cem was said by other Turkish analysts to have asked Iran not to resort to military action against the Taliban. During his talks with Iranian officials, the analysts said, Cem asked Tehran to support a Turkish peace plan for a United Nations-sponsored conference that would, among other things, give Afghan ethnic Turkic leaders a say in the running of the country. The analysts also cite recent visits to Ankara by two Uzbek opposition figures (Abdul Rashid Dostum and Abdul Malik) as well as Turkish President Suleyman Demirel receiving last week ousted Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik close to Iran.

Still, Ankara and Tehran's efforts to forge a common policy on Afghanistan cannot but paper over the serious differences between officially secular Turkey and Iran's Islamic republic. During a visit to Israel last week, Turkish Prime Minister Mesmut Yilmaz said the two countries would soon hold another round of joint military exercises. Although that was later denied by a Turkish foreign ministry spokesman, there is little doubt that military cooperation between Turkey and Israel, which began two years ago, is on the increase. Arab Middle Eastern states as well as Iran have criticized the growing ties between Turkey and Israel, calling it a threat to the region.

If Tehran worries about Turkish-Israeli friendship, Ankara is similarly concerned about the trilateral agreement signed last week between Iran and Turkey's arch-adversaries Greece and Armenia. During their weekend talks, Foreign Minster Kharrazi was said to have tried to reassure Cem that the trilateral agreement was not directed against Turkey. According to news reports, too, Tehran agreed on security arrangements for controlling independence-minded Kurdish guerrillas who have long used northern Iran as a base for their forays into southeastern Turkey. Ankara has been demanding for years that the guerrillas, who seek an independent Kurdistan, be forcefully restrained by Tehran.

Turkish-Iranian relations went into a deep freeze 19 months ago (Feb. 1997) when a row over alleged Iranian support for Turkish Islamist activists led to the two countries withdrawing their ambassadors. But their mutual political coolness did not prevent work starting on pipelines to pump Iranian and Turkmen natural gas to Turkey under a $23 billion deal signed two years ago.