Monday, November 9, 2009

Iran Uncertain About Turkey

Perhaps the various parties to the Iranian nuclear dispute have begun to figure out by themselves the seriousness of the issue and the superficiality of much of their own behavior, or perhaps they read yesterday’s blog. [Truth in advertising: neither Hillary nor Ali Larijani has personally communicated with me on the issue.] I said yesterday that Tehran had “fumbled the ball” by rushing to pour cold water on the idea of a Turkish role in the transfer of uranium to and from Iran, and I stand by that assessment. But a fumble is not the ball game. Whatever the reason, suddenly today both Washington and Tehran appear grudgingly to be behaving more thoughtfully.

In an effort to make up for the shortsighted and amateurish remark by Secretary of State Clinton that the U.S. would make no further changes (as though Washington had been bending over backwards to be understanding!), U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Glyn Davies took a step back from the confrontational cliff, calmly stating:

We want to give some space to Iran to work through this. It’s a tough issue for them. We’re looking for an early, positive response.

At the same time, reports of Iran’s rejection of a Turkish role notwithstanding, Iranian and Turkish officials were discussing the possibility. In February 2006, when Erdogan supported Iran’s right to peaceful use of nuclear technology but in the context of firmly opposing an Iranian nuclear bomb, Iran suddenly found itself unable to locate sufficient gas to meet its export commitments. Whether or not Iran manages its relations with Turkey more smoothly this time remains to be seen. Erdogan’s tone is more conciliatory now, but Bilkent professor Mustafa Kibaroglu’s assessment that Turkey would oppose Iran having nuclear arms presumably remains the case. Subsequent to that apparent bit of Iranian blackmail, Istanbul reported that both sides requested Turkish help in achieving a compromise.

Turkish-Iranian relations are, at the moment, heavily coated in sugar, but the potential for the relationship to turn overtly competitive has hardly been missed by commentators. As long as Turkey remained in Washington’s shadow, the idea could go nowhere, but now Turkey is asserting a regional leadership role with an innovative diplomacy that is far ahead of anything seen out of Washington in the past and even makes Obama look slow and awkward. Yet Turkey’s diplomacy also looks nothing like the confrontational attitude so popular in both Iran and Israel, offering a vision dramatically different from that of any other major regional player. So…will Tehran view this as a challenge or an opportunity?

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