Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is scheduled to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday for key talks expected to focus on Tehran's contentious nuclear energy program as well as Syria and the sectarian tensions simmering in mutual neighbor Iraq.
Erdoğan is expected to press Tehran to accept that regime change is inevitable in Syria and to reverse its steadfast support of President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish officials told Today's Zaman. The Turkish leader is also expected to air misgivings about the policies of Iraq's Iran-backed Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, which Ankara says are hardly constructive.
Iran, on the other hand, is likely to seek broadened cooperation with Turkey amid Western sanctions imposed as a means to pressure Tehran into halting its nuclear program. Iran, according to Turkish sources close to Wednesday's talks, wants enhanced economic cooperation with Turkey that would pave the way for large-scale investments in Turkey funded by soaring oil and gas revenue. With Iran facing US and EU sanctions due to its nuclear program, Turkey has emerged as one of the few valuable outlets for Iranian companies willing to circumvent sanctions. Iranian companies thus seek partnership with or the acquisition of Turkish businesses. According to the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB), foreign companies financed by Iran in 2011 totaled 590, an increase of 41 percent compared to the previous year. That puts Iran on the top of the chart of new foreign companies established in 2011, not only in nominal numbers but percentage-wise as well.
“Sanctions are already taking their toll on Iran,” said Sinan Ülgen, who heads the İstanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM). Ülgen said Iran will feel the impact of sanctions even more deeply when a new round of sanctions targeting Iranian oil exports come into force on July 1.
Growing Iranian business activity in Turkey, however, has generated mixed reactions in Ankara. Some are concerned about the rise of Iranian-funded companies in Turkey, fearing this would lead to a clash between Turkey and the West, which seeks to punish Iran because of its nuclear policy. Another camp, on the other hand, says Ankara should seize this opportunity and deepen business ties with Iran.
Erdoğan, who flew to Tehran from Seoul, where he attended a summit of nearly 60 world leaders on nuclear security, said prior to his departure that countries should be allowed to pursue nuclear energy but called for “openness and transparency in all phases” in the process of acquisition.
Iran says its nuclear program is completely for peaceful purposes, while the US and Europe suspect that Tehran will eventually use it to develop weapons, a prospect which unnerves Iranian enemy Israel. Turkey has long offered to play the role of mediator between Iran and the West and is prepared to host a new round of talks between Tehran and the P5+1 group, consisting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. The talks are expected to take place in April, according to a recent report, but the P5+1 group reportedly wants to hold the talks at a European venue rather than İstanbul. Iran wants the meeting to take place in İstanbul.
Syria and Iraq
Though its calls for dialogue on Iran’s nuclear policy have won Iranian praise, Turkey’s clear anti-Assad position in Syria and complaints over the policies of the Shiite government in Iraq have recently strained Turkish-Iranian ties.
Turkey has bitterly criticized Assad’s brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests and has raised the possibility of establishing a buffer zone inside Syria in the event of a massive influx of refugees.
Experts say Turkey’s clear opposition to Assad, which puts Ankara in the same league as the US, Europe and Arab countries, is a major irritant in Turkish-Iranian ties and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
“It may not be possible for the Iranians to accept the Turkish policy,” said Professor Hasan Köni of Kültür University. “Syria will continue to be a source of tension between Turkey and Iran.”
But others point out that Turkey is unlikely to take its opposition to Assad a step further and launch any military action against the Syrian leader, meaning that tensions with Iran will not boil over. “A Turkish-Iranian clash over Syria is unlikely. But the rivalry will never end,” said Nüzhet Kandemir of Bahçeşehir University. “The important thing is to keep this rivalry within limits.”
Underlining the tensions, Turkey, which will host a gathering of the anti-Assad “Friends of Syria” coalition on April 1, has not invited Iran to the meeting. In Tehran, Erdoğan is expected to tell Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials that Assad is on a path of no return and ask Iran to stop supporting the Syrian regime.
Erdoğan is expected to insist that change of regime is inevitable in Syria and tell Iran that Tehran’s image in the region will be damaged if clashes between Assad forces and the opposition turn into a protracted conflict, resulting in even more bloodshed.
Erdoğan will also express Turkish concerns over a reported transfer of weapons from Iran to Syria via Iraqi air space. Iraqi authorities have not been fully able to control the country’s air space in the aftermath of the US withdrawal. For Ankara, it is unacceptable that Iran sees this as an opportunity to transfer weapons to the Syrian regime.
Ankara is also concerned about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies, saying they are neither constructive nor inclusive. Tensions between Iraqi Shiite and Sunni groups escalated further when Iraq’s Shiite-led authorities issued an arrest warrant for Iraq’s Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi in December on charges of running death squads, sparking a protracted political crisis. Hashemi has taken refuge in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish north since the incident.
Erdoğan is expected to insist in Tehran that tensions over Hashemi should subside, according to Turkish officials.
Erdoğan’s talks in Tehran come as Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani prepares to visit the United States, reportedly to complain about the “destructive” policies of Maliki in the aftermath of the US withdrawal. Barzani is expected to express concern that the political integrity of Iraq is now at risk.
In addition to Ahmadinejad, Erdoğan will also meet with Iran’s first Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi and Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani. He will also inaugurate a Turkish culture center in Tehran during his two-day visit.