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Cold Spring Forecast in Iran-Turkey Relations

ANKARA, Apr 6 2012 (IPS) - Ties between Turkey and Iran appear to be headed downward in the wake of Tehran’s statement earlier this week that it would prefer not to hold the negotiations with the P5+1 group on its nuclear programme in Istanbul, as had been announced last week by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton.

The P5+1 is a group of countries, composed of the five United Nations Security Council permanent members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, plus Germany, which have been seeking assurances from Tehran since 2008 that its nuclear programme is intended for civilian purposes only and is not designed to produce a nuclear weapon.

The next round of negotiations, which had been scheduled to begin next Friday after more than a year’s hiatus, is widely seen, among the group’s Western members in particular, as critical to assessing whether or not Tehran is willing to make serious concessions, including possibly transferring its growing stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium outside Iran, in exchange for easing ever-tighter economic sanctions.

Turkey has attempted on several occasions in the past to reassure the West of Tehran’s peaceful intent.

“Islam does not allow for use of weapons of mass destruction,” Erdogan told reporters last week on his return from an official visit to Iran during which he reportedly conveyed a personal message from U.S. President Barack Obama to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But, after Tehran’s suggestion that it preferred not to meet in Istanbul, Erdogan’s tone changed sharply. “We have to be honest. Because of the lack of honesty they (the Iranians) are continually losing their international prestige,” he told reporters. The head of the Iranian parliamentary committee for national security and foreign policy, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, and members of the government close to him had publicly opposed Istanbul as the venue, proposing instead Baghdad, Beijing, Beirut and Damascus.

“The offers going round at the moment, Damascus or Baghdad, are a waste of time; it means (the meeting) won’t happen, because (the Iranians) know the other side won’t come to Damascus or Baghdad,” Erdogan fumed.

While officials here who have been in touch with their Iranian counterparts have since suggested that Tehran may yet agree to have the Turks host the meeting, media analysts speculate that Erdogan’s outburst may have reflected more growing bilateral tensions over Syria, Iran’s closest Arab ally.

Once-warm relations between Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al- Assad have deteriorated steadily over the year due to Damascus’ violent crackdown against the opposition to the point that Ankara now finds itself close to Qatar and Saudi Arabia in their call for arming rebel forces, some of which are based in Turkey.

Ankara has already reportedly drawn up contingency plans for forcibly setting up refugee safe zones inside Syria, even without U.N. Security Council authorisation, if the violence, which has already taken more than 9,000 lives according to the U.N., worsens.

And last weekend, Turkey hosted the second meeting of the “Friends of Syria”, consisting mostly of Western and Arab League nations that have called for Assad to step down without delay, even as former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, a special U.N.-Arab League envoy, tries to arrange a cease-fire between the two sides of what has effectively become a civil war.

Despite the secular nature of Assad’s regime, Iran has long been Syria’s most important regional ally, and is widely believed to be, along with Russia, its biggest source of security and military assistance during the year-long crackdown.

Their strategic alliance has been based in part on their “resistance” to Israel, but they also share, along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the ruling coalition in Iraq, common sectarian roots in Shi’a Islam. The Assad family and the top ranks of the Syrian army and security forces are Alawis, who also make up about 13 percent of the country’s population. Alawi Islam is a Shi’a offshoot.

Sunni Islam, on the other hand, is the dominant faith in Turkey, as well as in North Africa and in all of the Arab kingdoms, except Bahrain. And while Erdogan himself has defended Turkish secularism, his AKP party is avowedly Islamist, and its leadership is predominantly Sunni.

Fanned by fears of an Iran-led “Shi’a Crescent” in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, propagated in particular by Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the Greater Middle East has found itself increasingly divided by sectarian differences both within societies and between states. Over the past year’s “Arab Spring”, those rivalries appear to have intensified.

In their own relationship, Iran and Turkey have largely avoided such conflict, even as they competed for influence after the “regime changes” that took place in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, all three with overwhelmingly Sunni populations. And even though Turkey was cited as a possible “model” for new governments to follow, the influence of both countries has been limited, in major part due to the fact that neither is Arab.

The Syrian revolt, on the other hand, appears to have changed the Turkish-Iranian entente. Turkey has joined the anti-Assad coalition, composed of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both Sunni states supported by the U.S., Britain and France.

This is apparently making Iran reconsider its foreign policy with its Western neighbour, especially at a moment when Iraq, with a majority Shi’a population, is seeking good relations with both countries and trying to position itself as a peace broker between Tehran and Washington, a position to which Ankara has been aspiring all along.

In spite of the tension, Ankara and Tehran still need each other, although to different degrees and for different reasons.

Bilateral trade last year exceeded 15 billion dollars. Not only has Iran become an important market for Turkish goods, but Iranian oil and gas account for roughly half of Turkey’s annual energy supplies. Until now, Turkey remains one of the last countries, along with India, China, Russia, and Iraq, to resist Western pressure efforts to cut economic ties.

But if political tensions worsen, that could change. Indeed, just last week, and only one day after Erdogan concluded his visit to Iran, Turkey announced it would reduce oil imports from Iran by 20 percent and intended to make up the difference with imports from Libya.

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