REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- A war of words between Turkish and Iranian leaders intensified Thursday, threatening to delay or even scuttle a new round of talks between Iran and world powers, and raising fresh doubt about whether Tehran will bargain over its disputed nuclear program.
One day after Iranian leaders ruled out talks in Istanbul next week because of Turkey’s position on the Syrian uprising, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Iran of dishonesty.
“It is necessary to act honestly,” Erdogan said at a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, according to Reuters. The Iranians “continue to lose prestige in the world because of a lack of honesty.”
The broadside marked a remarkable turnabout for Erdogan, who has worked hard for years to cultivate ties with Tehran. He has repeatedly taken Iran’s side in its dispute with the West over its nuclear development efforts.
Erdogan’s comments suggested that Iran, which has few allies on the nuclear issue, is becoming even more isolated. And it also points to how the growing unrest in Syria is dangerously splitting the Middle East.
Officials of the European Union, who are trying to set up the talks with Iran next week, said no decision has been reached on the date and place. A White House spokesman said the Obama administration views jockeying over the site as a “sideshow” and that the issue may still be resolved.
But some diplomats close to the issue acknowledged that the outbursts this week have made Istanbul an unlikely choice, and that it may be difficult to find another venue in time to meet the target date of April 13-14.
Some diplomats said the dispute is the latest of many signs that the Iranian government is in no mood to give ground on the nuclear issue, despite growing pressure from economic sanctions and the threat of Israeli military strikes.
Although Iran said in a letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that it is ready to discuss the program, Iran has shown little other indication that it is ready to cooperate. It has continued to resist pressure from the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog agency to provide more information on its nuclear sites.
Iran has suggested several other possible meeting sites, including Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, Syria, and China. But China has been reluctant, and diplomats said Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus are unlikely choices because of security issues. Another possibility is Geneva, where talks were held in 2009.
Cancellation of this round of talks would not be totally unexpected. Many diplomats have been pessimistic about the prospects for this round, and were saying that it could take months for the tightening web of economic sanctions to inflict enough damage to force Iran to negotiate.
-- Paul Richter
Photo: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament at a meeting Tuesday in Ankara. Credit: Adem Altan / AFP/Getty Images