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Behind Turkey's New Friendship With Iran
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Iran and Turkey once ran the Middle East between them, their rival empires — Persian and Ottoman — coexisting in mutually restrained antagonism for centuries. The border that separates them today is one of the world's oldest, dating back to 1514. And Ankara and Tehran have regarded each other warily since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution put it on a collision course with predominantly Muslim Turkey's Western, secular orientation and its role as a key NATO country on the frontline of the old Soviet Union. But in a development that has raised Western eyebrows, relations between Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have lately become almost cozy.

Erodgan recently dismissed Western anxiety over Iran's nuclear ambitions as based on "gossip." Besides, he has implied, if Israel is allowed nuclear weapons, why not Iran? Erdogan was the first world leader to congratulate Ahmedinejad on his re-election in June, even as demonstrators protesting fraud were being pummeled on the streets of Tehran. The two leaders have met twice this month to sign a raft of energy cooperation and business deals, including a decision to conduct bilateral trade using their own currencies, rather than dollars or Euros. Turkey appears to be strengthening its economic ties with Iran precisely at a moment when Western powers are trying to isolate Tehran and muster support for tougher economic sanctions aimed at limiting Iran's nuclear program.

"Turkey's Cold War diplomatic position is over. Toeing the European or U.S. line, no matter what. That's history," says Sahin Alpay, politics professor at Bahcesehir University. "They do matter, of course, but national interests come first."

Where Turkey's foreign policy was once entirely shaped by its Cold War alignment with the West, the new game is pragmatism — and a doctrine that officials call "zero conflict with its neighbours." The energy-poor and power-hungry country is being stonewalled in its effort to join the European Union, and has begun to turn to the east and south for influence. And it is quickly emerging as a regional heavyweight. That's a sea change for a country that has aspired to become European ever since its Westernizing founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk exhorted Turks to "become on a par with civilized states" in the 1920s. Ankara has waited 50 years to join the European Union, and while that remains its goal, diplomats believe a stronger Turkey with regional clout will make the country a more attractive partner for reluctant E.U. powers, too.

Turkey remains a key U.S. ally and officially against all nuclear proliferation in the region. "It is a risky game," says Ferai Tinc, a foreign affairs commentator for the mainstream Hurriyet daily. "Turkey is a NATO member, a European Union member candidate and a temporary U.N. Security Council member. If it takes up a position which contradicts theirs, it runs the risk of losing favor with both sides — Iran and the West."

The foreign policy shift is not driven exclusively by cold-blooded calculation of national interest; there's also an emotional factor at work. Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is rooted in political Islam, and for all that its leaders have embraced Turkey's European bid, they were schooled in a political tradition that encourages solidarity with Muslims elsewhere, and as such, is cool toward Turkey's traditional alliance with Israel. Though Turkey's Sunni majority has traditionally snubbed Iran's Shi'ites, the two countries' leaders put differences aside to pray together during Ahmadinejad's visit to Istanbul earlier this year.

"Their ideological background gives the AKP certain leanings," says Tinc. "This can lead to unexpected remarks on the part of its leaders, like Erdogan's statements that seem to support Iran's nuclear program by suggesting that Israel has one too." Emotional volatility can also hamper diplomatic neutrality. Erdogan's fiery criticism of Israel's Gaza attacks early this year, for example, scuppered Turkish efforts to serve as a peace broker between Syria and Israel.

One looming test of the new foreign policy balancing act could come from its status as a potential alternative site for the U.S. missile-defense system that was to have been stationed in Poland and the Czech Republic. "Turkey has much to lose from the prospect of a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran, not to mention the potential for multiple new nuclear arsenals," the German Marshall Fund said in a recent report.

But other observers suggest that Turkey's new-found friendship with Tehran creates a win-win situation all around. "The fact that Turkey is talking to Iran doesn't hurt either Europe or the U.S.," says Alpay. "In fact, I'm sure they are glad that at least there is dialogue and with a country that is one of them. The only country who's not happy with the situation is Israel. The fact that Turkey is talking to Tehran implies that there is an exchange between the U.S. and Iran that [Turkey] is a go-between for." Indeed, if Turkey is rebranding itself diplomatically as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world, it needs good ties with both.

Source >  TIME

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