Turkey steps in to soften Iran's hard line

Finding itself in a bind, Ankara embraces the role of mediator between East and West and asks Tehran to suspend enrichment.

ISTANBUL // In a test for Turkey's self-styled role as a leading regional power bridging the divide between East and West, Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, has asked Iran to ease tensions with the international community in the row surrounding Tehran's nuclear programme. But there were no immediate signs that Iran is ready to take Turkey's appeal to heart.

"Catastrophes, wars and tensions that our region has seen in the past must not be repeated," Mr Davutoglu said during a visit to Iran this week, the Turkish media reported. "We want the Middle East to be a prosperous and stable region governed by political dialogue and diplomacy. Iran's contribution to the area becoming such a region is very important." Burak Ozugergin, Mr Davutoglu's spokesman, told Turkish reporters in Tehran that the minister had tabled new proposals concerning the nuclear row in his meetings with top Iranian officials. "We have conveyed our own proposals," Mr Ozugergin said. "We have brought ideas to untie the Gordian knot."

The spokesman gave no further details, but the Sabah daily reported yesterday that Mr Davutoglu asked the Iranians to suspend uranium enrichment. The minister told the Iranians that concerns in the Arab world regarding Iranian nuclear ambitions were rising and that the West's position towards Iran was hardening. "The fate of the region is in your hands," the newspaper quoted Mr Davutoglu as telling the Iranians. "Make a positive contribution to the [region's] future. Ease tensions a bit."

As the only Muslim member of Nato and EU membership candidate and a country with close relations to the West as well as to Middle East countries, Turkey sees itself as a potential regional leader and as an honest broker in political disputes. The row about the Iranian nuclear programme represents a critical test for Ankara's ambition. The West is concerned that Iran might want to build a nuclear bomb, something Tehran denies. Negotiations between Iran and a group of six world powers have so far failed to produce results. Last week, Iran escalated tensions by announcing it had started to enrich uranium further.

Seen from the Iranian standpoint, Turkey can play a role in explaining Tehran's position to world powers. Ankara was an important consultant, Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister, said after talks with Mr Davutoglu. "Turkey is familiar with Iran's positions which can help others to understand Iran better." But the minister did not give any indication as to whether Iran was ready to tread more carefully in the nuclear row, along with Turkey's wishes.

The conflict between Iran and the West has put Turkey into a bit of a bind. While stressing its primary concern is to prevent new tensions from rising in the region, Ankara has also publicly defended Iran's right to pursue a peaceful nuclear programme. In a time of worsening relations with its traditional partner Israel, Turkey's government has had frequent contacts with the leadership in Iran: Mr Davutoglu has visited Tehran five times in four months. Those developments caused some critics to accuse Turkey of turning its back on the West.

Turkey has not taken part in the negotiations between Iran on one side and China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States on the other side. But Ankara has said it is ready to have uranium from Iran stored on its territory as part of a deal proposed by the United Nations that would see Tehran being supplied with enriched uranium for a medical facility by world powers. Only days before Mr Davutoglu travelled to Tehran, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, met Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, for talks that also touched upon the nuclear row with Iran. A western diplomat in Ankara said Turkey might be able to help "to make the Iranians more flexible", but added there were "doubts if Turkey has the means to influence" Tehran.

Besides its regional ambitions, Turkey has domestic reasons to try to defuse the nuclear row. Possible new sanctions against Tehran could hit Turkey economically as tensions in the region would rise. And as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Ankara would be forced to take sides if the matter of new sanctions came to a vote there. Some observers say Turkey is hurting its own interests by appearing to be very close to a regime that is seen as despotic and undemocratic by the West. Although Ankara would not address human rights abuses in Iran, Turkey appeared to take Tehran's side in the nuclear row, Cengiz Candar, a columnist and a veteran political observer in Ankara, wrote in the Referans newspaper. "What will the image of such a foreign policy win for Turkey? It will win nothing, neither on the international stage nor in the region."