New York Times: Turkey wants to be the mediator between the new Obama administration and Iran, using its growing role in the Middle East to bridge the divide between East and West, said Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The New York Times
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
Published: November 12, 2008
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey wants to be the mediator between the new Obama administration and Iran, using its growing role in the Middle East to bridge the divide between East and West, said Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Mr. Erdogan said in an interview on Sunday that Barack Obama’s election opened new opportunities for a shift in relations between the United States and Iran, Turkey’s neighbor. Mr. Obama said during his campaign that he would consider holding talks with Iran, something the Bush administration has long opposed.
Mr. Erdogan described the note of congratulations sent to Mr. Obama last week by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as “a step that has to be made use of.”
“We are ready to be the mediator,” Mr. Erdogan said, before going to the United States to attend a meeting about the global economic crisis. “I do believe we could be very useful.”
The United Nations has placed sanctions on Iran for a nuclear program that the United States and other nations say is working to develop a nuclear bomb. Iran says the program is peaceful.
Turkey supports the position of its Western allies but argues that the sanctions are weakening Iranian reformists.
“We watch the relations between Iran and U.S. with great concern,” Mr. Erdogan said. “We expect such issues to be resolved at the table. Wars are never solutions in this age.”
Turkey fears an economically and politically isolated Iran, which supplies it with its principal alternative to Russian energy. It also wants to avoid another military conflict on its borders.
“They are deathly afraid of what might come,” said a Western official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “They don’t want a repeat of Iraq.”
Turkey argues that it is uniquely positioned to facilitate talks between Washington and Tehran. It is a NATO member, and it secured a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council last month. It is a Muslim country that has renewed relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors in recent years, achieving a breakthrough in May by bringing Israel and Syria together for talks for the first time in years.
But Western officials express skepticism that Turkey, a member of the Western alliance, could succeed as an impartial moderator between Washington and Tehran. Turkey’s relationship with Iran is complex. The nations have energy and cultural ties but vie for political influence in the region. And despite the Islamic tint of Mr. Erdogan’s government, Turkey is constitutionally secular and has deep ideological differences with Iran.
“They know that being a mediator between the West and Iran is really risky,” said the Western official who requested anonymity. “It’s going to put them in the wrong place.”
Still, with a new American administration and a president-elect who has said he intends to make broad changes in foreign policy, there may be opportunities.
“The ice will start shifting again in interesting and different ways,” the official said.
After its founding in the 1920s, Turkey cut off relations with its Muslim neighbors, even changing its alphabet from Arabic to Latin. It has been a close ally of the United States, supporting Washington throughout the cold war, but it had little voice of its own in international affairs.
Since Mr. Erdogan’s party came to power in 2002, however, Turkey has hosted presidents, prime ministers and kings of at least six Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Qatar. Mr. Ahmadinejad visited this summer.
Neighboring countries now account for 30 percent of Turkey’s foreign trade, up from 8 percent before Mr. Erdogan’s party was elected, said Ahmet Davutoglu, Mr. Erdogan’s top foreign policy adviser.
“Our principle in foreign policy is we’re against earning enemies," Mr. Erdogan said.
The government has also expanded ties outside the region — announcing plans to open 15 new embassies in sub-Saharan Africa, up from 12 — and has tried to rethink relationships at home. Last month, Turkish officials held talks with Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, a move that would have been unthinkable a year ago.
“This is no longer a country that makes foreign policy decisions based on ‘What would the West think?’ ” said Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Mr. Davutoglu said that a diversified foreign policy was just good business, and that the shift did not mean that Turkey was exchanging one alliance for another.
“No one should misunderstand that Turkey is now focusing more on Middle Eastern diplomacy than NATO — no,” he said. “If we are more influential in the Middle East, it is an asset for our process in Europe, it is an asset in NATO.”
There have been missteps, as when officials of the militant Palestinian group Hamas visited in 2006, but Turkey quickly backpedaled after Israel and the United States protested.
“They’ve been very helpful,” the Western official said of the Turks. And though diplomacy with Iran is a long way from succeeding, the official said that “one of the things that could help is a fellow Muslim country that is trying to lead Iran in a different direction.”
Mr. Erdogan, for his part, said Mr. Obama’s election offered a chance for the United States to regain the trust of the world and reclaim “an image that’s been lost.”
He said that the United States had “declared certain values firmly at the start of the 21st century,” but that “not only did they not advance, they stepped backward.”
“For me,” the prime minister said, “it’s very important to put these values into practice.”
Mr. Erdogan, who is finishing his sixth year as prime minister, offered Mr. Obama some advice: “Maintain the steadiness of your spine, but don’t engage in fights.”
Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Ankara, Istanbul and Erzurum, Turkey.