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Turkey: Relations With Iran Marred By Political Differences

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi continues a visit to Turkey today in an effort to smooth disagreements over Turkish-Israeli ties, Kurdish separatists, and a planned pipeline for delivering Iranian gas. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the turbulent state of Turkish-Iranian relations.

Prague, 18 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's top diplomat arrived in Turkey yesterday vowing to improve the two states' relations in the wake of numerous disputes that have flared up in recent months.

Going into the meetings, both Kamal Kharrazi and Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem were upbeat, implying that the visit could ease disagreements. Both stressed that good neighborliness should take precedence over their many political differences.

Few details of the discussions have emerged so far. But analysts say that if recent history is any guide, political relations between the two countries are likely to stay rocky despite the latest efforts to smooth them.

RFE/RL asked Sabri Sayari, the head of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to review some of the hottest disputes between the two countries and to rate the chances of overcoming them.

A major bone of contention is Turkey's military cooperation with Israel as Iran continues to calls for the Jewish state's destruction. Sayari predicts that the dispute is only likely to grow worse because Ankara considers its ties to Israel to be of major strategic value and wants to strengthen them further.

"One reason for the strength of the Turkish-Israeli ties has to do with the fact that this seems to be mutually advantageous to both sides. Turkey needs Israel's military-technological capabilities. Israel has become a very important source for arms acquisitions, weapons transfers, because Turkey's requests and purchases from the U.S. has run into difficulties in recent years because of [U.S.] congressional objections regarding human rights practices in Turkey. So I think Israel is an important alternative in that respect. I don't see how [Tehran] can prevent the ties between Turkey and Israel from becoming even stronger."

Another dispute between Turkey and Iran is over Turkey's slowness in completing a gas pipeline for delivering Iranian natural gas. The pipeline was due for completion at the end of last year, and Tehran says it has built its part. But Turkey's end remains unfinished, and Turkish officials recently said they will not be ready for the gas deliveries until 2001. The delay has seen Turkey negotiating to avoid up to $200 million in penalties for failing to meet the initial terms of the agreement.

Sayari says the Turkish delay is partly due to the country's economic problems in rebuilding following a particularly devastating earthquake last year. But he says Ankara is also going slow for political reasons. The pipeline project is opposed by the United States, which hopes that Turkey will use other energy sources instead -- particularly a planned pipeline to transport gas from Turkmenistan under the Caspian Sea and through the Caucasus to Turkey.

"It is a balancing act because Turkey has close bilateral relations with the U.S. But at the same time, Turkey has to take into account its energy demands, and Iran certainly is the closest source. Of course, the other source on which Turkey has been dependent for years is Russia. Turkey looks to Iran as a possible alternative source to Russia, and perhaps as a new source to meet this rising energy demand. And this creates a problem with Washington."

Sayari continues:

"I think there is also perhaps [another] political consideration [of] testing the ground to see whether or not the Turkmen gas project will take off and what will happen on that front. And if not much happens on that front -- which economically is a huge challenge -- I think Turkey will be much more inclined to go at a faster rate and complete the gas deal with Iran."

Still a third conflict centers on Ankara's accusations that Tehran shelters Turkish-Kurd rebels who have conducted a war for a Kurdish homeland in southern Turkey since 1984. Turkish officials say that remnants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) have strengthened their bases in Iran since their expulsion from Syria two years ago and the arrest and sentencing to death last year of their leader Abdullah Ocalan.

The dispute over the PKK flared up violently last summer as Iran claimed that Turkey dropped bombs on Iranian territory, killing five people. But Ankara maintained that its planes had only attacked PKK bases in nearby Iraqi border areas where Iranian officers were training rebels. Official negotiations over the incident are continuing.

Sayari predicts that the PKK is likely to diminish as a thorn in Turkish-Iranian relations in the future. He says that Ocalan's arrest and the Kurdish leader's subsequent calls for the PKK to abandon its armed struggle have made Ankara confident that it has won that war and the issue is now losing its urgency for the government.

"Turkish officials have been citing all along that the PKK has sanctuaries on the Iranian side of the border and that they engage in hit-and-run attacks from there, [and] the Iranians have been denying that. It has been an important issue, [but] now that the PKK's operations in Turkey have slowed down considerably and it looks like it will slow down even more, perhaps that issue will not be as important as it has been in the past."

A final major area of bilateral tension is Turkey's accusations that Iran also backs Islamic militants in Turkey who are battling the secular government. Most recently, Turkish officials linked Iran with the assassination in October of Turkish intellectual Ahmet Kisali, and later three Iranian officials were arrested at Ankara airport in connection with the case. They were released following an Iranian request.

Sayari says Ankara's conviction that Tehran backs radical Islamists is a constant topic of debate at meetings between the two sides and is likely to continue to bedevil Turkish-Iranian relations in the future.

But the analyst says that despite such ongoing political disputes, Turkey and Iran also have strong economic reasons to continue to live with their differences and not let them disturb their traditionally peaceful relations.

Sayari says that Turkey views Iran as a large potential market for its export products, as indeed it once was before sanctions were slapped on Tehran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He says many Turkish business leaders are eager to resume trading and are seeking to influence Turkish policy to that end.

Similarly, Iran views Turkey as an important potential market for its own oil and gas exports. The analyst predicts that the gas pipeline, once completed, will help generate closer economic cooperation. And that will give both sides new reasons to overlook their political differences, even if they remain unable to solve them.