IRAN: Ahmadinejad, Turkish premier find common ground on nuclear issue
After months of diplomatic isolation following Iran's disputed presidential election and the subsequent violent government crackdown, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad appears to have found a friend in Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan, who recently described Ahmedinejad as a "friend," arrived in Tehran on Tuesday with a delegation of more than 100 Turkish lawmakers and business leaders intent on strengthening trade relations between Turkey and Iran, which already amount to $11 billion annually.
Iranian news agencies reported today that the two countries would sign a $4-billion deal giving Turkey access to Iran's rich natural gas fields.
In an interview published Monday, Erdogan told the Guardian that Turkey enjoys "very good relations" with Ahmedinejad, adding that he had no intention of "interfering" in Iranian domestic affairs by discussing allegations of government rape and torture of opposition protesters.
He went on to support Iranian claims that its nuclear program is peaceful, slamming the U.S. and Europe for their alleged double standards toward Israel. Relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated dramatically since the Gaza war last winter, the most recent example coming just a few weeks ago when Turkey refused to engage in joint military exercises with Israel.
Ahmedinejad took the opportunity during Erdogan's visit to praise the Turkish premier's "clear stance toward the Zionist regime," saying, "when an illicit regime possesses nuclear arms, one cannot talk about depriving other nations from the peaceful nuclear program.
Erdogan's support for Iran appears to be based as much on economic pragmatism as on the West's stance toward Iran's nuclear ambitions. Others have speculated that Turkey, the former seat of the Ottoman Empire, is attempting to reassert itself as a regional powerhouse.
Although the Turkish government is nominally secular while Iran is an Islamic republic, the two countries have much to gain from closer relations. Iran needs diplomatic allies and foreign investment, and Turkey needs resources like natural gas and a larger market for its exports. Both countries struggle to balance matters of religion and state with security concerns while guarding against minority nationalist movements.
Erdogan's stance toward Israel and Iran has been firm but measured. Despite recent tensions, Turkey has worked hard over the years to maintain cordial relations with Israel, Iran and the Arab world, and even hosted secret negotiations between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights last year.
Erdogan has avoided the hostile rhetoric favored by Ahmedinejad. According to BBC Monitoring, Erdogan told the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera on Sunday that Turkey prefers a "middle-of-the-road position" on major Middle East problems.
He went on to urge continued dialogue between Iran and the West, but added that it is "unfair and unacceptable for a state to have nuclear arms in the region, and yet be ignored, while emphasis is placed only on Iran," referring to Israel's unofficial but widely acknowledged nuclear arsenal.
-- Meris Lutz in BeirutPhoto: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad welcomes Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at his office in Tehran on Tuesday. Credit: Behrouz Mehri / AFP/Getty Images