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Iran: Dispute With Turkey Seems To Be Ending

An angry episode between Iran and Turkey may be winding down, but the dispute over the arrest of Islamic militants may have exposed even deeper resentments over Russia's new drive to control Central Asia's gas. RFE/RL's Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 2 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran appears ready to improve relations with Turkey after a month of angry rhetoric over alleged links to the murder of a Turkish journalist.

Signs of easing have emerged this week with the visit of a Turkish trade commission and reports that Turkey's new president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, has decided to attend a meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization in Tehran.

The visits may calm Iran's fury, which erupted on 7 May after suspected Islamic militants were arrested in Istanbul, accused of the 1993 slaying of journalist Ugur Mumcu. The suspects reportedly implicated Iranians in the bombing of Mumcu's car, setting off diplomatic protests.

Tensions mounted a week later when Turkey arrested more militants in the bombing of another secular columnist last year and a series of political killings in the past decade. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit accused Iran of aiding Kurdish separatists and Islamic groups. Tehran has denied the charge.

There were more frictions last week after Turkish authorities detained several hundred Iranian nationals in a reported immigration sweep. But efforts to defuse tensions have been launched at a high level. Recent statements on the trade mission, border cooperation and Sezer's visit indicate the efforts are achieving success.

But perhaps the clearest signal of the attempt to end the dispute was a commentary carried Wednesday by the official Iranian news agency IRNA. The analysis by a correspondent in Ankara blamed the entire affair on "the Zionists" and suggested that Turkey could face "disastrous" consequences in its 22-year gas deal with Iran.

It was perhaps only a matter of time before the issues of Israel and gas were both drawn into the latest conflict between Turkey and Iran.

The huge gas agreement is the biggest piece of business between the two countries, providing a limit to the damage that can be done by any bilateral row. Last year, Iran completed a line to the Turkish border, but Ankara said it was not ready to take delivery of gas under its 22-year agreement with Iran.

Iranian charges against Israel, a Turkish ally, also contribute a convenient explanation for any bilateral rift. By shifting blame from Turkey, Iran seems to be hinting that its hostilities against Ankara need to be controlled and brought to a close.

The finger-pointing at Israel is not new. Early on in the controversy, Iran's Foreign Ministry suggested that Turkey's arrest of Islamic militants was orchestrated by Israel to counter Iran's spy trial of 13 Jews.

The new element in IRNA's commentary is its open resentment of Russia over President Vladimir Putin's recent gas deal with Turkmenistan and its warning to Turkey that its interests will not be served.

The IRNA analysis stated, "Many political observers believe Putin's decision to buy 50 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan stunned Turkish leaders." IRNA added that, "The Turkish press, in recent commentaries, interpreted the deal as being the biggest blow Russia struck against Turkey's ambition of obtaining cheaper energy from Central Asia and the Caucasus."

Behind the analysis is a competition with Russia that Iran rarely acknowledges in public. Tehran's effort now is to convince Turkey that Russia will use its deal with Turkmenistan to keep gas from reaching Turkey by any other route. Iran is clearly promoting its own route as a better alternative for Turkey, although it is saying little about its disappointment, now that Russia rather than Iran seems set to tap Turkmen gas as a source of supply.

Last month, Iran announced that it has cut its own gas imports from Turkmenistan by half in apparent retaliation for the Russian gas deal. This separate but related feud between Iran and Turkmenistan has led to its own series of tentative efforts to mend fences, which are now only starting to get underway.

But Iran's anger at Russia is a risky business. As in most previous cases, Tehran prefers to show its temper toward third countries like Turkmenistan and Turkey rather than air its differences with Moscow.

While competition with Russia appears clear on Iran's northern front, Tehran is cooperating with Russia's Gazprom in developing its giant South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf. Gazprom has been invited to help build Iran's planned gas pipeline to India, making a break with Russia impractical, no matter how much disappointment there may be.

Iran seems more likely to work against Russian interests in Central Asia by pointing out the dangers to Turkey if Moscow succeeds in becoming a monopoly supplier of the country's gas. At the same time, Iran is warning Turkey that it will be subject to heavy fines if it does not take delivery of gas from the Iranian pipeline next year.