Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s two day official visit to Iran gained the attention of world leaders, because soon after his visit to Tehran he was scheduled to visit Washington on October 29. However, due to his tight schedule, Erdogan’s visit to Washington was rescheduled until December 7. In late September, when Erdogan revealed his plan to visit Tehran, he stated: “I will make a trip to Iran towards the end of October… We will discuss regional problems, including this [nuclear] one” (Anadolu Ajansi, September 28).
For some time Erdogan has advocated that Iran should pursue peaceful nuclear energy. While defending Iran’s right to have nuclear energy, Erdogan compares Iran with Israel, which creates a problem for Turkey’s strategic allies as well as the West. Recently, Erdogan elevated his argument to compare Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons and Iran’s aspiration to have “nuclear energy.” During his visit to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly, Erdogan told reporters that Iran’s nuclear program is not aimed at “military ends” and noted that Israel has “nuclear weapons” and has used “phosphorous bombs” against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. “Why are these not on the agenda? It is always Iran… If only Iran is put on the world agenda, then we may neglect other issues such as the Gaza [conflict] that should be addressed,” he said. Erdogan has also urged caution over imposing any new sanctions on Tehran, saying that they will not prove useful (www.europenews.dk, September 28).
Erdogan’s visit occurred as Western powers await Tehran’s decision on the proposal for it to send some of its low-enriched uranium abroad for conversion into nuclear fuel, and shortly after U.N. inspectors completed checks on the recently-revealed enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom (Hurriyet Daily News, October 27). Turkey, has sought to help resolve the nuclear dispute between its Western allies and Tehran. Thus, it was an important trip for world powers to follow and to learn what Erdogan told the Iranian leadership.
During his visit to Tehran, Erdogan maintained his controversial rhetoric by comparing Iran with Israel. In a press meeting following his visit with the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Erdogan welcomed Iran’s stand during talks in Geneva over its nuclear program, and said: “In the first Geneva meeting, Iran has presented a sincere picture. They said, ‘Let’s come up with a consensus, work together and work with the process within the framework of this consensus.’” U.N. Security Council permanent members “all have nuclear arsenals, and then there are countries that are not members of the International Atomic Energy Agency that also have nuclear weapons,” Erdogan said, apparently referring to Israel (Hurriyet Daily News, October 27).
While Ankara is seeking to act as a mediator between Iran and the West, Tehran’s motivation appears to be based on establishing better relations with Turkey to prevent consensus over U.N. sanctions against the country. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that “Iran and Turkey constantly exchange views on regional issues. I believe after Erdogan’s visit, the two presidents’ meeting will be on the agenda. Such meetings are steps to strengthening relations between the two countries,” the minister said (www.aknews.com, October 26). With regard to bilateral relations, Turkey and Iran plan a tax-free industrial zone on the border between the two countries (Hurriyet Daily News, October 20), and signed two symbolic agreements; one of which aims to use the Turkish and Iranian currencies for bilateral trade, as well as another memorandum of understanding about investment in Iranian gas fields (Aksam, October 28).
Time will tell as to whether these agreements will actually produce tangible results. The key issue on Erdogan’s mind was to find a way to play a bridge building role between Iran and the U.S. in order to end Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. For that matter, the Turkish press reported earlier that Erdogan plans to shuttle between Tehran and Washington (Hurriyet Daily News, October 16), yet the Iranian side denies that he has such a role (www.cnnturk, October 20). After his visit, asked about his role between Tehran and Washington, Erdogan said that he did not travel to Iran to play an intermediary role, but rather his visit was focused on bilateral, regional and global problems. Erdogan added “we have had opportunities to discuss all these issues with President Ahmadinejad, and the President of the Iranian parliament Ali Laricani” (Cihan, October 28). Yet, State Minister and Chief Negotiator for the E.U., Egemen Bagis stated that “Turkey’s intermediary role between Iran and the U.S. is very critical for world peace” (Zaman, October 28).
Responding to criticism over whether Turkey might be reorienting toward the Middle East, Erdogan said “Turkey is expanding its relations; it is not changing its direction. Our axis is obvious. I guess people cannot get rid of their Cold War mentality. Turkey may be extremely good friends with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Georgia and Armenia, with Greece or Bulgaria as well. This is neither against NATO, nor can it be considered as a stance against any other country or group of countries. We have to eliminate such restrictive paradigms,” he said (Today’s Zaman, October 29). On Turkey’s relations with Israel, Erdogan noted that Ankara would continue its ongoing bilateral ties with Tel Aviv based on the principle of “rightness,” and without accepting any pressure on its own political will (Today’s Zaman, October 29).
It appears that Turkey is trying to open a window of opportunity by seeking to play a mediating role between Iran and the West and expand its influence in the region. By signing symbolic gas agreements with Iran, Ankara appears to be strengthening its energy cards against other gas suppliers and the West, and Iran itself to keep all actors in line, which may balance Turkish interests. It is less likely that Turkey will make multi-billion dollar investments in Iran’s gas projects in spite of European and U.S. objections. However, by signing the “memorandum of understanding,” Ankara may well have prepared the ground for possible openings in the future.