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Iran: Bilateral Ties Improving With Turkey After Period Of Strain

A visit to Turkey this week by Iran's deputy foreign minister highlights efforts by both countries to improve ties after a period of strain. In part one of a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports on the reasons for improvement.

Prague, 23 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Meetings by top Iranian and Turkish officials in Ankara this week show both sides are intent on pursuing better ties after months of diplomatic spats.

Turkey's semi-official Anatolia news agency reports that during a three-day visit ending today by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohsen Eminzade, the two sides agreed to increase cooperation on security issues. The Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement it called on Iran to improve relations by supporting Ankara's struggle against radical Islamic militants and separatist Kurdish rebels.

The high-level effort to work on bilateral political problems closely follows recent progress by Ankara and Tehran over their biggest commercial dispute. The two sides agreed early this month that Turkey will begin importing Iranian natural gas by July of next year. That reconfirmed their commitment to a 1996 deal which in recent years has seen Iran threatening to demand compensation from Turkey for failing to meet deadlines.

The new political and economic initiatives are in sharp contrast to a series of crises that have rocked Turkish-Iranian relations for much of the past year. Those crises saw Iran last summer charging that Turkey had launched an air strike on Iranian territory. The charge was countered by Turkish accusations that Iran provides shelter to the separatist Turkish-Kurd Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Tensions rose again this May with widespread Turkish media accusations that Tehran backs Islamic militant groups in Turkey and is implicated in past assassinations of Turkish secular leaders. The charges sparked a flurry of angry diplomatic traffic between the two sides despite efforts by the Turkish foreign minister to calm events by saying he had seen no direct evidence for accusing Tehran.

Turkish analysts say that now -- as both sides emphasize cooperation again -- another cycle of oscillations in relations between Turkey and Iran appears to have run its course. That cycle balances the political frictions created by the two states' diametrically opposed systems with the strong economic attractions they feel as neighbors, creating regular ups and downs in their ties.

Semih Idiz, a journalist with Turkey's daily "Star" in Ankara and an expert on Turkish-Iranian relations, says that since the creation of the Islamic Republic both countries' foreign policies have been shaped by a strong fear of the other state's political and social models.

"Turkey as a state model was diametrically opposed to what Iran represented just as the system in Iran is opposed to what Turkey's secularism represents. Turkey is important because it is an Islamic country and so it is important to people who want a model of a liberal environment, an easier environment, with less pressure from the mullahs."

The political differences lead to regular charges by both sides that the other is interfering in its affairs. Tehran last year included Turkey in its allegations that there were foreign hands behind the unrest which swept Iran after a police raid against students calling for greater press freedom. And Ankara regularly accuses Tehran of trying to promote radical Islam inside Turkey.

But even as such charges occupy the headlines, the two countries often seek to reassure each other that the diplomatic tensions will not threaten their trade ties.Such concerns resulted three months ago in the curious sight of a Turkish delegation heading to Iran to discuss how to increase their commerce at the very height of the dispute over the Turkish media charging Tehran backed assassinations in Turkey.

Idiz calls such apparent contradictions the sign of a love-hate relation between the two countries.

"It was interesting that while you had accusations flying, on the other side you had a delegation signing new agreements with Iran with a view toward increasing the mutual trade level, with a view to getting rid of things like double taxation. So, that signals this kind of love-hate relationship between the two countries. When you are accusing someone of serious crimes you don't usually send your minister there to conduct very important trade deals there but that is exactly what happened."

Turkish Foreign Trade Undersecretary Kursad Tuzmen, who led the delegation to Iran three months ago, said he was trying to divorce Ankara's commercial policy from its political disputes. He estimated total annual trade with Iran at $800 million.

Commercially, Turkey and the Islamic Republic complement each other nicely. Turkey's industries are thriving, while Iran's are hard hit economically, creating a market for Turkish goods like refrigerators and cars. And Iran is energy-rich while Turkey must import almost all its oil and gas, creating a market for Iranian fuel.

Turkish analysts say that the commercial attractions between the two countries limit the damage that can be done in any bilateral row and mean that, ultimately, any period of crisis will be followed by a period of rapprochement.

Ozdam Sanberk of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) in Istanbul told RFE/RL recently that encouraging commerce as a way to counterbalance political tensions with Iran has become a basic principle of Turkey's foreign policy.

"Definitely, you may have some problems with your neighbors, you don't have only perfect relations and cooperation, but also conflicts and disagreements and what is diplomacy but contradiction management? So definitely, if we have a convergence on some points, we must optimize this convergence."

Sanberk says that even as political spats come and go between Turkey and Iran, trade relations between them will continue to grow. And that means that Ankara and Tehran -- despite their frequent appearances to the contrary -- have long ago learned how to live with their differences.