- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2008

OP-ED:

Nearly two weeks after Iran refused to yield to the demand by Germany, France, Britain, Russia, China and the United States that it stop developing nuclear technology that can lead to a nuclear weapon, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will travel to a NATO country for the first time. Turkish President Abdullah Gul will meet the Iranian leader on Thursday in Istanbul. While Iran’s influence as a regional power has undeniably been enhanced by standing against the threats of new sanctions and continuing its nuclear program, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit to Turkey will further that image.

But what will Turks gain from it? At best, nothing. Furthermore, this visit is likely to cause trouble for Turkey.

Technically, the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany unanimously agree that Iran should not have nuclear weapons. They differ in their tactics, but they agree that it is absolutely vital that Iran sees no positive side to trying to further its nuclear aims. Turkey’s political leaders, however, have chosen to see these high-level “talks” as a show of “good will” in the name of peace. Mr. Gul has also hosted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who ordered genocide in Darfur, for the same reason. But a Turkish proverb suggests that talking is not always a virtue. Knowing when and how to stay “silent” is.

It’s one thing for Turkey to nurture relationships with its neighbors. No one, be they friend or foe of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) or any other Turkish political party, would deny that, at minimum, a civil relationship with other countries in the region can only be good for Turkey. But this current situation with Iran and the threat of it obtaining nuclear weapons is serious. And Turkey’s leaders, simply, may well be in over their heads.

Curiously, though, AKP is strongly supported by the Bush administration. The U.S. certainly did not remain silent about a Constitutional Court case that decided the future of the AKP. Now that the court has decided not to shutter the AKP, the Bush administration has complimented the strength of Turkish democracy. In fact, there is speculation in Turkey that the AKP must have been in contact with Washington about Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit - though no evidence of such a communication exists. Turkey seems to be acting completely independent. While the White House is likely unhappy about the visit, U.S. officials continue to praise AKP leadership for its pro-active engagement with its neighbors.

In another scenario, it’s also possible that Turkey could sign a natural gas deal with Iran, violating America’s Iran Sanctions Act. If that happens, one can only wonder how Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would react. Alas, she has been an exceptionally strong defender of AKP policies. Yet if Turkey signs that energy deal with Iran, the U.S. could end the November 2007 agreement that opened a new chapter of cooperation and intelligence sharing in the fight against PKK terrorism.

Furthermore, Mr. Gul often boasts that Turkey and Iran have not fought a war since the early 17th century. The facts of the Turkish history, however, suggest differently, like Turkey’s invasion of Tabriz during World War I. Yet Mr. Ahmadinejad has made it clear that unlike every other visiting dignitary, he will not visit the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founder, who created a secular republic in a Muslim nation. So Mr. Gul capitulated and instead invited him to Istanbul. So while these two leaders represent different forms of governments, they in fact seem to have much in common.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan says that Turkey cannot stay silent on matters related to Iran, especially when fighting could be possible. Turkey refused to be used as a way into Iraq for the United States, and it certainly won’t be used to attack Iran either, Mr. Babacan says. However, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be indicating a different circumstance. Mr. Erdogan admitted during a visit to Washington that he wished Turkey had cooperated with the U.S., because it would have made it easier for Turkey to defend its national security interests.Also, he blamed the opposition Republican People’s Party, CHP, for defeating the measure that proposed cooperation with the United States.

Surely, politicians tend to gravitate toward populist demagogy. We cannot know whether Mr. Erdogan really meant that Turkey should have cooperated on the invasion of Iraq. It is unclear whether he really opposes Iran having nuclear weapons. Those same leaders who argue against the West pressuring Iran say that it’s no different than Israel or Pakistan having nuclear weapons.

Turkey is blundering its way in this complicated relationship, unsure which side it wants to take or how big a threat it sees Iran to be. Turkey’s political leadership believes they can dance with Iran and simultaneously become a major regional player. Let’s hope they’re right. Otherwise, the Turkish people will be merely a casualty of a reckless policy.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.