Erdoğan, in Iran, says NATO radar could be dismantled if needed

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) welcomes Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (C) and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (R) at the presidential office in Tehran on March 29, 2012. (Photo: EPA)

March 30, 2012, Friday/ 13:25:00

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave assurances to neighboring Iran that a US radar deployed in Turkey as part of a NATO missile defense system is not a threat to Tehran.

Erdoğan, speaking to Iran's state television during a visit to Tehran on Thursday, said the radar could be dismantled if conditions Turkey had put forward to host the radar are not respected. Turkey agreed to host the radar after lengthy negotiations with the US during which it insisted that no country be named as a source of threat and that data to be collected by radar not be shared with Israel, Iran's enemy.

“If NATO does not comply with Turkey's conditions, we can ask them to dismantle the system,” Erdoğan said, according to Iran's Fars News Agency.

NATO does not mention any country as a threat to be countered by its nascent missile defense system but US officials did name Iran as a threat on numerous occasions. The Turkish decision to host the radar has strained Ankara's ties with Iran, prompting angry statements from some Iranian officials threatening to hit the radar if Iran is targeted.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who accompanied Erdoğan during his visit to Tehran, said Iranians are not disturbed by Turkey but there were concerns about the radar. He echoed Erdoğan, saying no non-NATO country will have access to its data -- a reference to Israel  -- and that Turkish generals will be involved in the command and control of the system to ensure it operates according to agreed conditions.

“Technically it is possible for us to leave the system in six months if we notice different practices,” Davutoğlu said in televised remarks on Thursday evening.

Quest for cooperation on Syria

Erdoğan's visit to Iran comes as Turkish-Iranian ties are strained over Syria, where the UN says 9,000 people have been killed since protests against President Bashar al-Assad's rule began more than a year ago. Ankara has long insisted that Assad leave power, while Iran has firmly supported the Syrian regime.

There was no mention of Syria at a joint news conference of Erdoğan and Iranian First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi on Wednesday. His subsequent talks with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were closed to the press, but a statement published on Khamenei's official website said he told Erdoğan that Iran strongly opposes any foreign intervention in Syria's conflict and will defend Damascus so it can continue “resistance” against Israel.

Erdoğan, speaking at a news conference after his return to Ankara on Thursday night, played down differences, saying Khamenei wanted Turkey and Iran to act “in solidarity” regarding Syria. “A similar request has come from Mr. [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev as well,” he said, referring to a meeting he had with the Russian leader in South Korea earlier in the week. “They want us to come together as Russia, Iran and Turkey and do something,” he said.

Speaking to Iranian state television, Erdoğan called for Turkish-Iranian cooperation on Syria and said all foreign nations “should respect the will of the Syrian nation.” “Iran and Turkey should start joint cooperation and help each other in this regard,” he said.

Davutoğlu said Khamenei was deeply saddened by the bloodshed and that he said he was ready to work with Turkey. But the Iranian leader does not want any intervention from outside the region, Davutoğlu said, emphasizing that Turkey is also opposed to such an intervention.

The foreign minister insisted that tensions over Syria will not undermine Turkish-Iranian relations. “There is common ground between Turkey and Iran. We will not let a regional balance based on Turkish-Iranian rivalry to emerge,” he said. “There could be those who want a new cold war but both Turkey and Iran know history well enough to not let this happen.”

But underlining the persisting differences, Davutoğlu emphasized that Assad must go in order for problems in Syria to be resolved. “Proposals that involve Assad staying in power cannot offer a real solution. Even if we accept such a formula, the people of Syria will not,” he said. “We will not ease the pressure on Syria, not even for a minute, until the bloodshed ends.”

On Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Tehran backed a UN-sponsored peace plan for Syria that calls for withdrawal of government troops from rebellious cities, but does not demand the removal of Assad.

Erdoğan, however, said he did not believe the peace plan proposed by Kofi Annan, the UN envoy for Syria, will be implemented. He said there is no need “now for me to say I am hoping or expecting something [from the Syrian authorities].”

“Because he continues to kill. As we now see such a picture, I don't have any hope [that Syria will comply with the Annan plan],” he said in Ankara.

Support on nuclear program

Erdoğan's two-day visit to Iran also focused on Tehran's nuclear program, which the West suspects is intended for producing weapons. The Turkish prime minister, who met Ahmadinejad after talks with US President Barack Obama in South Korea, voiced support for Iran, saying it has the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

He said he had told Obama that Khamenei rejects claims that Iran aspires to produce nuclear weapons, citing Islamic norms that would never condone weapons of mass destruction. “Once I am told this, I cannot make a claim that Iran is producing nuclear weapons,” he said. “Don't they have the right to have nuclear energy for peaceful purposes?”

Erdoğan also said the West should be fair and treat everyone equally on the issue of nuclear energy, reiterating his criticism of Western silence regarding Israeli possession of nuclear weapons. “This should be accounted for as well. Otherwise we have to question why they are not acting with honesty and fairness,” he said.