Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu paid an official visit to Iran on September 12-13. He met the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani and the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Following his meeting with Mottaki, Davutoglu and his counterpart stressed the importance they attach to bilateral relations, as well as regional cooperation. Davutoglu noted that the two countries shared deep-rooted historical ties and their neighborly relations are based on the principle of refraining from interfering in each other’s affairs. He outlined many areas where they explored boosting bilateral relations, ranging from economic cooperation to security. Referring to this multi-dimensional partnership, Mottaki described Turkish-Iranian relations as "strategic" (Cihan Haber Ajansi, Anadolu Ajansi, September 12).
The foreign ministers emphasized that given the centrality of the threat of terrorism facing both countries, they will continue their collaboration in combating this phenomenon, referring to their joint efforts against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK). Davutoglu also highlighted the flourishing economic activity between the two countries, noting that the bilateral trade volume has reached $11 billion annually, despite the global economic crisis. In addition to discussing cooperation in various areas, the two main items on Davutoglu’s agenda were the nuclear issue and energy cooperation. Davutoglu’s meeting came in the wake of the announcement by Washington that it will consider holding talks with Tehran, despite the latter’s reluctance to discuss its nuclear program. Iran forwarded a proposal to the major powers expressing its readiness to discuss global nuclear disarmament, as well as other international issues. Although the White House did not find Iran’s proposals as responsive to its concerns about its nuclear program, it nonetheless showed interest in holding direct talks with Iran (Today’s Zaman, September 14).
Davutoglu reiterated Turkey’s position that the resolution of the nuclear problem should be based on mutual respect. He also conveyed to Jalili Turkey’s readiness to host negotiations between Iran and Western countries (Anadolu Ajansi, September 13). However, this is not the first time that Turkey has proposed to mediate between Iran and the West, and its previous offers failed to produce any practical results. Reportedly, both Washington and Tehran were reluctant to see Ankara play such a role (EDM, March 10). Following the press briefing with Davutoglu, Mottaki thanked his Turkish counterpart for Turkey’s support for Iran’s right to obtain nuclear energy (Anadolu Ajansi, September 12). Although Ankara remains eager to act as a mediator, what leverage it may hold to convince Tehran to compromise on the Western demands remains to be seen.
Energy was the other key issue on the agenda. Turkey has a major incentive to help solve the diplomatic problems bedeviling Iran’s relations with the West and bring Iran into the orbit of the European energy security discussions, a policy which is also supported by many European countries.
Turkey seeks to deepen its energy partnership with Iran, especially considering its efforts to become a major energy hub. Indeed, one of the biggest obstacles before the Nabucco project, which Turkey considers as a strategic priority, is finding suppliers, Iran is the most likely alternative, since it possesses the second largest gas reserves in the world. Turkey indeed has been eager to act as a bridge connecting Iranian gas to the European grid through Nabucco. Although Ankara signed a major energy cooperation deal with Iran in 2007, it had to suspend those plans due to American objections. U.S. sanctions toward Iran prevent the development of the Iranian gas sector and the export of its gas to Western markets. Since its fields are underdeveloped and it needs immense transportation infrastructure, Iran has not emerged as a major player in gas markets, and even has been forced to import gas from Turkmenistan to meet its domestic demand. Prior to the signing of the Nabucco inter-governmental agreement in Ankara, Turkish officials, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan emphasized their willingness to tap into Iranian gas, but U.S. officials reiterated their objection to the Iranian option (EDM, July 14). However, Davutoglu said that Turkey would work to help Iran export its gas to European markets.
Turkey’s Iran policy resonates well with the recent course of its regional diplomacy. Ankara has fostered closer regional dialogue with Iraq, Syria and other Arab countries in order to create a peaceful neighborhood and develop closer economic partnerships, including energy projects (EDM, August 12). Bringing Iran into the same circle is definitely a prime motive driving Ankara’s policies toward Tehran.
Davutoglu, as the architect of this policy, appreciates the central role that Iran plays in the region and expresses his aversion to any instability that might be caused by the ongoing diplomatic problems, as well as the developments in Iranian domestic politics. This concern, however, results in a status quo policy of supporting the Iranian government. As reflected in Ankara’s acquiescent attitude during the Iranian regime’s harsh crackdown on the protestors following the disputed presidential elections, Turkey was criticized for not being sensitive to domestic developments in Iranian politics (EDM, June 18).
Another underlying problem in Turkey’s Iran policy concerns the differing interpretations both parties attach to "regional cooperation." Iran views regional cooperation as a way to limit the involvement of the West and the United States in regional affairs, as well as to exclude Israel. Turkey, in contrast, values its ties to the West and defines its regional policies in complementary terms. Indeed, such differences of opinion were apparent in Ahmadinejad’s statements following his meeting with Davutoglu, which contained strong anti-Western rhetoric. Ahmadinejad claimed that the improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations is an obligation "in a process whereby great and oppressor powers are in decline" (Anadolu Ajansi, September 12).
A major test for Turkey’s regional diplomacy might perhaps stem from its ability to foster closer cooperation among its neighbors, while also ensuring that it does not present an anti-Western platform.