x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

No sign that Turkey persuaded Iran to reject Syrian regime

The Turkish prime minister was quoted as assuring Iran that Turkey "has always clearly supported the nuclear positions of the Islamic republic of Iran".

Turkey's prime minister seemingly had little success in persuading Iran to stop supporting the regime in Syria as he ended a two-day visit to the Islamic Republic last night.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan met his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for 90 minutes yesterday but there was no press conference. The Iranian president usually relishes any opportunity to perform before television cameras.

The Turkish premier was later due to speak with Iran's absolute supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the city of Mashhad.

Iran's state-run media focused on the less contentious aspects of Mr Erdogan's visit. He was quoted as assuring Mr Ahmadinejad that Turkey "has always clearly supported the nuclear positions of the Islamic republic of Iran, and will continue to firmly follow the same policy in the future".

Turkey has offered to host revived nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers that are scheduled for April 13, although the venue has yet to be agreed.

Mr Erdogan on Wednesday slammed Israeli rhetoric against Iran, saying: "Military threats against a country that seeks to master peaceful nuclear technology are not acceptable."

At the same time, the Turkish premier has repeatedly called on Iran to cooperate with the UN's nuclear watchdog to ensure the transparency of its nuclear activities.

Mr Erdogan will have pressed Iran to use its considerable leverage with Damascus to persuade the Syrian president to implement a UN-sponsored peace plan and not stall for time.

The plan, developed by Kofi Annan, the special envoy of the UN and Arab League, and formally accepted yesterday by the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, calls for a ceasefire and national dialogue.

A foreign ministry spokesman in Ankara said yesterday: "We hope that Al Assad's decision [to accept the plan] will not turn out to be an act to buy time."

Mr Erdogan, a one-time ally of Mr Al Assad, no longer trusts him and has called on him to step down. Tehran has said it supports the UN plan, which does not call for the removal of the Syrian president, Iran's staunchest Arab ally.

The Turkish premier's Tehran visit was an acknowledgement of Iran's influence. Tehran wants to be viewed as an indispensable power broker in regional conflicts and resents that it has been upstaged by Turkey and Qatar.

In turn, however, Iran will be required to demonstrate that it can exert genuine pressure on Mr Al Assad.

The turmoil in Syria has left Iran jittery. Tehran's ability to project its power in the Arab world would be greatly reduced if Mr Al Assad is replaced by a Sunni-dominated government in Damascus.

Mr Erdogan could serve as a valuable channel for Iran to hedge its bets with the Syrian opposition.

Economic cooperation was another feature of Mr Erdogan's visit. Trade between Turkey and Iran has soared from US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) to $16bn over the past decade. The Turkish premier was reported by Iran's state media saying the goal was to bring that to $35bn by 2015.

Both countries have been keen to insulate their political differences over Syria, Iraq and the Arab Spring from mutually beneficial commercial ties.

Turkey relies on Iran for 30 per cent of its oil imports and has refused to go along with sanctions imposed by the US and Europe, saying it will observe only UN-mandated restrictions on Iran.