x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Is Turkey the new fulcrum on the Iran-US see-saw?

Turkey has a heightened role in resolving the crisis over Iran's nuclear programme.

The notable thing about the latest round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and western powers was not their predictable failure but rather, their location. Unlike previous rounds held in Geneva, the two days of talks that ended in frustration on Saturday were held in Istanbul.

Turkey was not a participant in the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 - the UN's permanent Security Council members and Germany - although it appears to have consulted with various parties on the sidelines. But the continued deadlock actually amplifies Ankara's importance in resolving the nuclear dispute; it's the only player with access to both sides.

There was no breakthrough in Istanbul because the US and Iran have mutually exclusive visions of what a diplomatic solution would entail. The talks could not even broach the limited goal of a confidence-building fuel-swap because both parties are at odds over whether such a deal is a step towards acceptance of Iran's ongoing enrichment programme, as Tehran insists, or a prelude to Iran suspending enrichment, as the West demands.

Neither side is politically willing or able to make the compromises that the other demands, and each believes time is on its side: the US and its allies say sanctions and covert action have slowed down Iran's nuclear progress, allowing more time for economic pressure to bring Iran to heel; Tehran believes resisting such pressure has made uranium enrichment an intractable fact on the ground in Iran, which the West will eventually have to accept as part of any diplomatic solution.

Iran knows as well as the Pentagon does that the standoff can't be resolved by a "military option": Defence Secretary Robert Gates has bluntly pointed out that at best, military action can delay Iran's nuclear progress by a year or two, while strengthening the regime and ensuring that it goes ahead and creates a nuclear deterrent. That, and the declining position of the US and its allies throughout the region, give the Iranians confidence to hold out for a grand bargain under which Washington accommodates their security interests and their status as a regional power. This logic requires that both sides will talk again, though no new meeting is scheduled.

The deadlock increases Turkey's importance, as it is the only player traditionally aligned with the West but on friendly terms with Iran.

The party of Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan has certainly broken with Washington in pursuing a foreign policy aimed at stabilising the region by integrating all key stakeholders, including Iran, Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas. But the US strategy from which Turkey has distanced itself -  dividing the region into a zero-sum confrontation between pro-western "moderates" and pro-Iran "radicals" - has been a catastrophic failure. Indeed, more than anything else, it is the demise of Pax Americana, accelerated by military misadventures in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, that has boosted Turkish influence in the Middle East.

Turkey's growing  independence from Washington over the past decade in its willingness to challenge failed policies on Iraq, Gaza or Iran has boosted its soft-power influence. The emergence of an increasingly influential regional power that offers a model of democratic governance, moderate Islamism and economic prosperity, while also engaging productively with Iran or Hamas at the same time as it maintains troops in Afghanistan under the Nato banner and seeks European Union membership, ought to be a source of reassurance rather than a cause for anxiety.

Ankara annoyed and alarmed Washington when it publicly began to position itself somewhere between the US and Iran on the nuclear issue, at a time when Washington was seeking to isolate Tehran. A US diplomatic cable from late 2009 released by WikiLeaks has the US undersecretary of state Philip Gordon pressing Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu on the need to publicly isolate Tehran. But the Turkish minister pushes back: "Only Turkey can speak bluntly and critically to the Iranians," Mr Davutoglu contended, "but only because Ankara is showing public messages of friendship."

The US diplomat then somewhat patronisingly suggests that Mr Davutoglu has only spoken of the negative consequences of sanctions or the use of military force, but what of the consequences of Iran attaining a nuclear weapon? "Davutoglu gave a spirited reply, that 'of course' Turkey was aware of this risk. 'This is precisely why Turkey is working so hard with the Iranians.'"

Turkey and Iran have distinct and often competing interests, and Turkey's influence in the region has grown partly at Iran's expense. While Turkey seeks to avoid a nuclear-armed Iran, Mr Davutoglu sees the policies adopted by the US and its allies as being unlikely to be effective in preventing that. If the result is confrontation, Turkey will find itself in the middle of a very nasty regional meltdown. Thus the incentive to broker a deal.

Turkey is not going to deliver the outcome the western powers want. Still, it might just manage to get them the deal they need in order to help create an architecture of security that gives a stake to all those capable of significantly threatening the peace.

Right now, Turkey may be better placed than any other power to begin that project. But last weekend's Istanbul talks are a reminder of how difficult it will be.

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst. Find him on Twitter @Tony Karon