LALE KEMAL

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LALE KEMAL
March 21, 2012, Wednesday

Erdoğan to Obama: You left Iraq in Iran’s hands

An advisor to a senior Turkish state official quoted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as telling US President Barack Obama following the US withdrawal of troops from Iraq in late December of last year that “you [US] left Iraq in the hands of Iran once you withdrew.”

In other words, Erdoğan was reflecting his displeasure over Iran's influence in Iraq growing after the US withdrew its troops from the country. This anecdote the advisor shared with me also hints at a divergence of opinion between Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the architect of Ankara's controversial policy on Iran.

In an earlier column published on Nov. 16 of last year, I argued that Turkey's current policy on Iran, which can be summarized as being too supportive of this country against, for example, international pressure exerted on Tehran over its alleged nuclear arms development policy, is problematic from several perspectives.

In the same column, I said Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yıldız reportedly ran out of patience during a Cabinet meeting in which he complained about Iran, accusing the country of being unappreciative of Turkey's gestures, and allegedly criticized Davutoğlu over his handling of the Tehran regime.

Yıldız, who has long been uneasy over Iran's policy of charging too much on gas that it has been supplying to Turkey, announced on March 14 that Turkey has decided to take this country to an international court of arbitration over the price of Iranian natural gas as Tehran refused to offer a discount.

“The price paid for gas imports from Iran is above international prices,” Yıldız stated.

Turkey imports 10 billion cubic meters of gas each year from Iran, making it Turkey's second-biggest supplier after Russia.

However, Yıldız ruled out that Turkey's decision to take Iran to court will have a negative impact on relations in general between the two countries.

I am now told by an advisor of a senior state official that Prime Minister Erdoğan also does not see eye-to-eye with Davutoğlu when it comes to Iran. Erdoğan's unease with Tehran, according to the advisor, became more explicit after Turkey voted in 2010 against sanctions imposed by the United Nations on Iran over its alleged nuclear arms development plans, raising questions about whether Turkey had become the weakest link in NATO by siding with Tehran.

Erdoğan allegedly wished for Turkey to cast an absentee vote instead of a veto against sanctions on Iran. But Davutoğlu's desire for a veto trumped Erdoğan's absentee vote choice. Erdoğan allegedly mistrusts Iran in general and is not happy with Iran's influence in Iraq and Syria, or the Assad regime.

Turkey has already written off Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, once a good friend of Ankara, since he ordered his military to crack down on the opposition.

The majority of Turkey's population is Sunni, while Iran's is Shiite. This sectarian split widened since the start of conflicts in the Middle East last year as uprisings by the people against their autocratic regimes continued in a number of countries in the region.

Ankara, meanwhile, believes that Iran has been behind a recent deterioration of relations between Turkey and Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite and close to Iran, harshly criticized Turkey on Jan. 14 for what he termed was its “surprise interference” in his country's internal affair, claiming that Turkey's role could bring disaster and civil war to the region -- something Turkey will itself suffer. Ankara believes Iran motivated Maliki to make his critical remarks about Turkey which, diplomatic sources say, are baseless.

At the moment, Turkish-Iraqi relations are quite bad, some Turkish diplomatic sources admit.

Foreign Minister Davutoğlu is also aware of Iran's animosity toward Ankara. However, he still sticks to a policy of dialogue with Tehran, sometimes at the expense of angering Erdoğan and a number of other ministers.

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