“My view is that what is happening should in no way be regarded as a surprise. In this age of communication, in an age where everybody is aware of each other, the demands and desires of the people are very realistic,” Gül said at a joint press conference with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in response to a question about recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt, which resulted in the toppling of both countries' long-time leaders. “We see that sometimes when the leaders and heads of countries do not pay attention to the nations' demands, the people themselves take action to achieve their demands,” he added.
Turkish President Gül uses his visit to Tehran, which coincides with an Iranian opposition rally, to express support for popular uprisings in the Middle East and urge administrations in the region to listen to the demands of their people
Gül's visit, his first official trip to Iran as president, coincided with an opposition demonstration in support of popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, which organizers hoped would revive Iran's reformist “Green” movement. President Ahmadinejad's government, which considers the Green movement “seditionist” after protests against his 2009 re-election, had not authorized the rally.
Gül did not comment on the rally, attended by hundreds, during his speech. Both presidents spoke of close relations between Turkey and Iran, with Ahmadinejad saying Iran considers Turkey's development and achievements in international arena as its own.
An 18-day unceasing protest in Egypt brought down the non-democratic regime, putting an end to the 30-year rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Throughout the crisis in Egypt, Turkey expressed sympathy with the people. Iran has hailed events there as the people's victory against a Western-backed dictator.
Iran’s opposition movement, which has not held a demonstration since December 2009, when eight protesters were killed at a rally, has used events in Egypt and Tunisia to galvanize its supporters and get them back on the streets. Without specifying which countries he was talking about, Gül said: “The desires of people must be taken into account. In this respect, fundamental reforms must be carried out, whether economic or political,” reminiscent of a speech he had made in the past, again in Tehran, in which he called for reform in the Muslim world.
Speaking to a group of reporters en route to Egypt on Monday, Gül estimated that the events in Egypt and Tunisia will have an impact across the Middle East, saying all countries in the region will get their share from what happened in Egypt.
“People are making reforms, which leaders fell short of doing,” said Gül aboard the plane, emphasizing that the Middle East has been undergoing a fundamental, albeit late, transformation. He explained that the honor of the Egyptian people was damaged during the authoritarian rule and that their anger was not addressed by the administration. But he also said the transition period should not take long.
“What we hope for is that every country will come out of this process stronger and their peoples will be prouder and happier and that the process will be a short one,” Gül said at the news conference in Tehran.
Turkey, a secular country with a predominantly Muslim population that has been negotiating membership with the EU, has been touted as a model for the post-reform Middle East. Turkey says it does not profess to be a model for any other country. Speaking about Turkey’s role in the region, Gül said Turkey has been a source of inspiration for the region and that there are many things countries could learn from each other. “In fact, Egypt has the necessary intellectuals, elite and every type of strength [needed] for a change. But it is important to mobilize them,” Gül said.
More trade amid sanctions
Turkey has developed closer relations with its neighbor Iran over recent years as Tehran has come under tighter international sanctions, led by the United States, aimed at getting it to curb its nuclear program. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful. Turkey calls for a negotiated settlement to the dispute and insists sanctions are counterproductive.
Gül is accompanied by a large delegation of businessmen who are seeking more business opportunities with Iran at a time when Iran is facing difficulties in doing business with other countries due to sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union. Turkey voted against UN sanctions on Iran last year, but says it will implement them as they were approved by the UN Security Council despite its vote. Ankara refuses, however, to implement other sanctions imposed unilaterally by the US and the European Union.
President Gül, addressing businessmen accompanying him on his visit, said Turkish-Iranian trade did not involve any goods that could relate to Iran’s nuclear program and called on the businessmen not to feel restricted while expanding trade ties with Iran. “Do not impose psychological restrictions on yourself. You can do about anything in Iran, from construction to tourism to mining,” Gül told the businessmen, according to a statement from the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEİK), whose members accompanied Gül in Iran.
In an earlier statement on Gül’s visit, DEİK said Turkish-Iranian business ties are in their golden age because of sanctions. “This could open the way to resolving problems that hinder the expansion of trade ties between the two countries,” Rıza Amuzgar, a member of DEİK’s Turkey-Iran Business Council, was quoted as saying in the statement. The Turkish side complains that technical obstacles stemming from the Iranian side still hinder trade.
The trade of goods not subject to the UN embargo continues between Iran and Turkey, according to Amuzgar, who also said about 150 Iranian companies facing increasing obstruction in Dubai are now planning to transfer their investments to Turkey. Similarly, Europe-based companies willing to do business with Iran but face difficulties in doing so because of European sanctions against the country are also opening offices in Turkey to maintain their business ties with Iran.
In Tehran, Ahmadinejad and Gül reiterated that the two countries aim at increasing the volume of their bilateral trade, currently standing at $10 billion, to $30 billion. “We have the necessary will and the necessary potential to do so,” Ahmadinejad said.
Turkey says it is against nuclear weapons in the Middle East, but calls for respect for every country’s rights to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Ahmadinejad thanked Turkey for its stance towards the dispute on his country’s nuclear program. Turkey hosted a key meeting between Iran and major world powers last month on the nuclear dispute but the talks ended in disappointment.