Turkey’s Erdogan prepares to visit Tehran

Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit Iran this week for the first time since 2012 in a bid to repair relations damaged by the conflict in Syria.

ISTANBUL // Turkey’s prime minister travels to Iran this week on a two-day trip that aims to repair relations damaged by the conflict in Syria.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Tehran on Tuesday, his first since 2012, is part of a wider initiative to reclaim the good graces of Turkey’s neighbours

Mr Erdogan is scheduled to hold his first meeting with president Hassan Rouhani, who was elected last year. The two leaders are expected to sign a trade deal and form a new cooperation council, designed to institutionalise bilateral contacts and regular talks between the two governments.

Mr Rouhani is expected to visit Ankara next month.

Mr Erdogan’s trip comes as his government is under fire for alleged corruption involving a Turkish businessman of Iranian descent, Reza Zarrab, who is accused of having bribed officials to authorise oil-for gold deals with Tehran that circumvented western sanctions imposed over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme.

Analysts predict trade relations between the countries will be enhanced by the easing of sanctions following a deal between world powers and Tehran last year.

Under pressure from the United States, Ankara cut its energy imports from Iran, a key supplier, in the past two years in line with sanctions against Tehran, but still gets almost 40 per cent of its oil from Iran, according to the International Energy Agency. That percentage is expected to increase as sanctions are eased.

Bilateral trade was US$22 billion (Dh80.8bn) in 2012 and $13.5bn in the first 11 months of last year, according to Turkish government figures. Both countries want to boost trade to $30bn by 2015.

Celalettin Yavuz, of the Ankara-based Turkish Centre for International Relations and Strategic Analysis (Turksam), said Turkey was eager to revive joint energy projects with Iran.

The expectation of enhanced economic relations is mirrored by hopes for a rapprochement on the political front. The two countries have clashed over Syria, where Mr Erdogan has called for the resignation of president Bashar Al Assad, who is supported by Tehran in a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people over the past three years.

There are signs that Turkey and Iran are trying to find common ground on the issue. Mr Rouhani told Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper on Friday that “the fact that we have different opinions concerning Syria is not keeping us from talking about this issue”. He said Turkish-Iranian relations were improving.

The countries also support different groups in Iraq, where Mr Erdogan has backed Sunni politicians and clashed with the Shiite prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, who is close to Iran.

Mr Yavuz said Turkey was trying to mend ties with neighbours such as Iran and Iraq because rocky relations in recent years had isolated Ankara in the region.

As an example of mistakes made by the Turkish government, he pointed to Ankara’s insistence that Mr Al Assad leave power. “There must always be a plan B,” he said.

Turkey, which regards itself as a regional leader, has also seen the deterioration of ties with Egypt and Israel. Ankara’s criticism of the removal of Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi from power by the military last year created tensions with Arab countries and with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as well.

Ibrahim Kalin, an adviser to Mr Erdogan, said last year that Turkey faced “meritorious isolation” in the region, which Mr Yavuz said amounted to “a declaration of bankruptcy” for Turkish foreign policy.

He said Mr Erdogan’s abrasive style had damaged Turkish interests and that “left to its own devices, the government would not change anything”.

For instance, with Iran, Ankara is not acting out of its own initiative, he said. Instead, Mr Erdogan was trying to make use of the opportunities offered by the easing of tensions between Iran and the West.

Gokturk Tuysuzoglu, a political scientist at Giresun University on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, said the government knew that its recent regional policies had caused problems for the country.

“Turkey is aware of the current pressures and of the necessity to do something about it,” he said.

But he added the government was moving carefully because Mr Erdogan’s commanding style was popular with conservative voters.

Still, signalling that it wants to end the “meritorious isolation”, Ankara has stepped up contacts with neighbours and the European Union.

In recent months, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has visited Iraq, Iran, Greece and Armenia. Last Tuesday, Mr Erdogan met top EU officials in Brussels, the first such meeting in five years.

Mr Erdogan is also scheduled to host the French president, Francois Hollande, on Monday and plans to visit Germany on February 4.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: January 25, 2014 04:00 AM

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