Ahmadinejad visit shows Turkey’s diplomatic emancipation

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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined regional leaders for an economic summit in Turkey yesterday (23 December), a month before nuclear talks with six major powers in Istanbul.

With the United Nations, US and EU sanctions over its nuclear programme biting harder than many expected, Iran may be looking to its increasingly economically powerful and diplomatically assertive neighbour Turkey to help relieve the pressure.

Ahmadinejad held one-hour closed door talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an late on Wednesday (22 December), and on Thursday joined leaders from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asian states for a summit of the 10-member Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) which is expected to produce few results.

Summit host Turkey is a rare example of a politically stable democracy with a still fast-growing economy in a region plagued by conflict but blessed with vast oil and gas reserves.

The big powers want Iran to halt its uranium enrichment programme, which they suspect is a cover for an effort to build a nuclear arsenal. Iran says it has the right to enrich uranium for civilian use and does not want atomic weapons.

Iran may ask Turkey to take on the role of mediator in the talks in Istanbul next month with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, analysts said.

"We will do everything we can," Ahmet Davuto?lu told reporters. "But our role is clear. We are hosts. If the sides want it, of course we are ready to provide every kind of help."

Ahmadinejad, who was warmly greeted by Turkey's President Abdullah Gül, is due to give a news conference later on Thursday which might be the highlight of the summit.

Turkey, a rising Muslim democracy that has applied to join the European Union, has cultivated its eastern neighbours to consolidate its position as a link between Europe and the Middle East and Central Asia.

'Zero problems with neighbours'

Turkey will use it to showcase its growing diplomatic assertiveness and project a foreign policy it defines as having "zero problems with neighbours."

Tension is high between Islamabad and Tehran after a mosque bombing in Iran, but Ahmadinejad will be joined at the ECO summit by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, which is fighting al Qaeda and Taliban militants, is also attending.

"Turkey is providing a model for these countries in the region, many of which are going nowhere in terms of social peace and economic prosperity," said Semih Idiz, a Turkish foreign policy analyst. "Turkey provides an alternative of political stability, economic growth and regional peace."

In the past decade, Turkey has transformed itself from a financial basket case on the periphery of Europe into one of the world's best-performing economies which now stakes a claim to a regional leadership role.

Gül said regional leaders should work closer to turn ECO into an important corridor for energy, communications and transportation between the East and the West.

"Our region which has been the centre of trade for thousands of years among three continents has to return to its glorious days again," he said during his speech in an Ottoman palace on the European shore of the Bosphorus, overlooking the Asian side.

US and Western allies have praised Turkey's role in exporting democracy and economic prosperity in the region, but some allies are concerned the Muslim NATO member might be undermining international efforts to isolate Iran.

ECO promotes regional trade and economic development and its members are Afghanistan Azerbaijan Iran, Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan Pakistan Tajikistan Turkmenistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan.

(EURACTIV with Reuters)

Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said Turkey saw itself as a global player and was using the ECO summits to demonstrate its influence.

"Most of these countries in ECO are mired in domestic problems and Turkey’s interests are far more global. Turkey does not need ECO, but Turkey does not loose an opportunity to show it’s central to world politics," Barkey told Reuters.

The presidential election in the Islamic republic of Iran in June 2009 unveiled deep societal divisions between conservatives and reformists of Mir Hossein Mousavi. 

After the election, violent demonstrations have shaken the country. Meanwhile, the world is losing patience with Iran's nuclear programme. The West had proposed a deal whereby Iran would send uranium abroad for further enrichment to feed some of its reactors for medical purposes, but the government missed an end-2009 deadline for doing so.

By diminishing Iran's stockpile, the deal could have opened the door to confidence-building talks with the six countries trying to talk Iran out of its nuclear ambitions - the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

The stakes are high as the issue is a severe test of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is up for review this year. If Iran persistently breaks the treaty's rules with impunity, the NPT will be discredited. Harsher measures seem inevitable. There are only two options for the six countries: tougher sanctions or military action, analysts argue.

In this context, Turkey and Brazil have been pushing for a deal to exchange 1,200 kg of low-enriched Iranian uranium for higher-enriched nuclear fuel from abroad, which would be used in a medical research reactor.

As a EU candidate country, Turkey is expected to align its foreign policy with Brussels. In a recent interview for EURACTIV, Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle expressed disappointment from the growing assertiveness of the Turkish foreign policy.

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