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Analysis: Turkey's Iran standoff role irks allies

By Selcan Hacaoglu
Associated Press Writer / May 25, 2010

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ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey's attempts to mediate Iran's nuclear standoff with the West have transformed into an aggressive effort to forestall new U.N. sanctions. The assertive campaign is placing Turkey in opposition to longtime allies Israel and the United States.

It also raises the question of whether NATO's only Muslim member is becoming less of a bridge between East and West than a powerful international advocate for its neighbors in the Middle East.

Turkey and Brazil reached a deal in Tehran a week ago under which Iran would ship much of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey, but it failed to ease concerns in the West that Tehran will continue to enrich uranium to higher levels with the aim of building a nuclear weapon. The U.S. introduced a resolution last week calling for a series of economic and trade restrictions after winning support from China and Russia.

The prompted Turkey, a temporary member of the Security Council, to send letters to 26 countries, speaking against sanctions and seeking support for the envisaged swap deal.

"Turkey wants to prevent the escalation of tensions with Iran to avoid suffering from it economically," said Nihat Ali Ozcan of the Economic Policy Research Institute in Ankara. "It is also seeking to raise its profile in the Muslim world but its loyalty is at risk in the eyes of the West."

The Obama administration says it appreciates Ankara's efforts and its ability to be an effective interlocutor with Tehran. But officials say they were unhappy with the timing of the deal and Ankara's claim that it met U.S. and U.N. Security Council demands.

The administration's swift response a day later announcing that Security Council powers had reached a deal on new sanctions was intended as a message to Turkey and Brazil as much as to Iran. While Turkey has been eager to portray its mediation as a sign of its growing power on the world stage, its diplomacy could not persuade Security Council members including, China and Russia, to hold off on sanctions against Iran.

For Israel, the nuclear swap deal comes at a time when diplomatic relations with Turkey are at a historic low.

While Israeli foreign ministry officials declined comment on just how the swap deal would affect the Israeli-Turkish diplomatic relations beyond admitting that "it is a factor," government ministers have been direct in their assessment that the deal is a bad one.

"The deal that they have offered is of course not good enough," Dan Meridor, Israel's top minister for intelligence and nuclear affairs, said of the nuclear swap deal between Brazil, Turkey, and Iran during a news conference Monday. "I'm not sure why they did it -- it may be a trick, it may be something else ... I hope, because they haven't offered something substantial enough, that it will not work."

The Turkish government's involvement comes as another bitter twist in a relationship that has soured in the last 18 months over such events as Israel's offensive in Gaza and deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon's diplomatic snubbing of Turkey's ambassador during a meeting in January of this year.

According to Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey, the relationship between Israel and Turkey has reached such a low point that Turkey's involvement in the Iranian swap deal is unlikely to affect the diplomatic relationship between the two countries -- because it can't get any worse.

"The crisis is so severe that I don't think this agreement will change anything," he said.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002 in a landslide victory and despite the country's traditional alliance with the West, has expanded relations with Muslim countries, lifting entry visas with Syria and Libya, while openly criticizing its ally and friend Israel for what it says is excessive use of power against Palestinians -- earning respect in the broader Muslim world. Israel had long supplied and upgraded Turkey's military equipment while Turkey allowed its pilots to train over the larger Turkish air space.

Erdogan walked out off the stage last year after berating Israel's President Shimon Peres at an international gathering in Davos, Switzerland over the Gaza war. He quickly became a hero in the Muslim world with protesters chanting his name in street demonstrations.

That applause was meaningful for a nation whose ancestors held the seat of the Caliphate, the spiritual leader of world's Muslims for four centuries during the Ottoman Empire.

The government also hosted shunned Hamas political leaders, mediated between Israel and Syria which demands the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Golan Heights as a condition for peace. It has sent soldiers to Afghanistan and Lebanon but placed them under strict orders not to fight with fellow Muslims.

Despite all the rhetoric, Turkey is far from a break with the West. It has vast interests intricately weaved in the NATO, the European Union. Turkey has a customs union agreement with its top trading partner Europe and wants to become part of the EU.

But there is no doubt that the tone in Turkey's foreign policy is changing.

Although, the United States has been its chief ally since the Cold War, Turkey opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq through Turkish soil, triggering tensions with Washington.

Until the late 1990s, Turkish relations with Iran were tense, with its secular, westernized government accusing Tehran of trying to export its radical Islamic regime to this predominantly Muslim but secular country. Today, Turkey wants to build deeper trade ties with Iran.

"Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei is hoping that Erdogan would confront the West on his behalf," said Meir Javedanfar, an Israel-based Middle East analyst and co-author of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and The State of Iran.

Turkey's enthusiasm for European Union membership has eroded in the face of European skepticism about admitting a large Muslim country and resents pressure from the West to reckon with the uglier aspects of its past, by making peace with Armenians and acknowledge that mass killings of Armenians at the turn of the century were genocide -- a claim strongly denied by Turkey. Some other thorny EU demands are granting more rights to minority Kurds and withdrawing its troops from Cyprus which was divided into Turkish and Greek sectors after Turkish troops invaded it in the wake of coup seeking to unite with Greece in 1974.

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Associated Press Writers Desmond O. Butler in Washington and Karoun Demirjian in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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