Monday, March 16, 2009

Tehran Blows a Diplomatic Opportunity to Cultivate Turkey

Turkey demonstrated a new flexibility in pulling away from Israel during its recent attack on Gaza, and Gul has been trying to resolve the U.S.-Iranian nuclear dispute for some time. Tehran's rush to slap Gul down while he was still in town seems an egregious and short-sighted mistake that missed an opportunity, however slim, to cement its weak regional ties.

Perhaps Ahmadinejad should instead have listened more carefully to Gul:

Gul expressed optimism after his meetings in Tehran and said that ties between the U.S. and Iran would improve as both countries have the good will for bettering relations. He also praised the new U.S. administration, saying that President Barack Obama, who showed that his team would "listen to every one and establish dialogue regarding problems", was pursuing a very different approach from his predecessor.

Nice words do not make it so, of course, but this early in the Obama Administration, nothing is set in concrete. Read Gul's words as follows: "Think, folks, when the ice thaws, movement becomes possible. Help the current flow in the direction you want." Given the defeats suffered by the U.S. since 9/11, the economic mess, the rising challenge in Central Asia, and Israel's insufferable extremism, the context may just be right for Ankara to have some real influence on events. Iran would do well to position itself appropriately.

Turkey and Iran have many reasons to cooperate. Their economic ties are already expanding. They also have nuclear issues in common. As noted in the Turkish media, "Ankara does not want its nuclear energy program to be prevented by the arguments used against Iran."

Gul implicitly broke new diplomatic ground in a statement presumably designed to be heard in Washington as well as Tehran, saying that Iran's security concerns must be addressed as well as that Turkey will oppose Iran trying to address those concerns by developing nuclear weapons. Since Tehran claims that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, it should have loudly welcomed these words and embraced the Turkish message. After all, in fact that message requires a change in policy only from Washington, which has long carefully avoided recognizing Tehran's legitimate security concerns.

Look for this to become an election issue in Iran in the coming weeks. Ahmadinejad may need confrontation with the West for career purposes, though the arrival of the Obama Administration, diplomatic repositioning in Ankara, calming of domestic political waters in Lebanon, European Mideast initiatives, and pressure for Palestinian unity are beginning to make Ahmadinejad look a bit long in the tooth. Some outside of Ahmadinehad's inner circle in Tehran may feel that Iran's national interest points in a different direction.

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