x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Turkish PM offers to act as broker with Iran

Recep Tayyip Erdogan uses a high-profile visit to the White House in Washington to dismiss fears that his country is drifting away from the West.

ISTANBUL // Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, has used a high-profile visit to the White House in Washington to dismiss fears that his country is drifting away from the West, telling the US government that Ankara is willing to do more to persuade Turkey's neighbour Iran to seek a solution in the row surrounding Tehran's nuclear programme. "We as Turkey stand ready to do whatever we can to ensure a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue in our region," Mr Erdogan said after a meeting with Barack Obama on Monday, according to a transcript of his remarks posted on the White House website. "This is not the time to make enemies; it's the time to make friends."

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Mr Erdogan said Turkey, a Muslim but secular country that is integrated in such western institutions as Nato and the Council of Europe, was in a unique position to mediate in the nuclear dispute with Iran. "We are a country that can establish contact with Iran," Turkish media yesterday quoted Mr Erdogan as telling reporters. "We can create a corridor" for contacts, he added.

But Mr Erdogan also stressed that he was against introducing new sanctions against Iran, saying he favoured diplomatic efforts to solve the dispute. Western concerns that Iran might plan to build a nuclear weapon formed one of the central issues raised during the meeting in Washington. The US president stressed "how important it is to resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear capacity in a way that allows Iran to pursue peaceful nuclear energy but provides assurances that it will abide by international rules and norms", according to the White House. "I believe that Turkey can be an important player in trying to move Iran in that direction."

Turkey said last month it was ready to store uranium from Iran in the framework of a possible agreement between Tehran and the international community, represented by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States - as well as Germany. The deal has not materialised, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has criticised Iran for building an additional plant for the enrichment of uranium, a process that could be used to develop a nuclear bomb. Iran has retaliated by announcing that it would construct 10 more enrichment facilities. Mr Erdogan told reporters in Washington the IAEA decision had been "rushed", but added that the process to find a solution was "not finished". In October, Mr Erdogan raised eyebrows in the West when he defended Iran's right to pursue a nuclear programme. Under his government, relations between Turkey and Iran, an important supplier of natural gas for Turkey, have improved considerably, as have Ankara's ties with Syria and Iraq.

At the same time, relations with Israel have worsened. Mr Erdogan has criticised Israel's policy in the Gaza Strip with harsh words. He has also stressed his country's position against nuclear weapons in the whole region, thereby criticising Israel's presumed nuclear weapons programme. Turkey also drew international criticism by insisting on inviting Omar al Bashir, Sudan's president, to a conference in Istanbul last month. Mr al Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court in connection with war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Darfur region. Mr al Bashir cancelled his trip to Istanbul at the last minute.

Those developments, combined with a lack of progress in Ankara's bid to join the European Union, triggered concerns that Turkey may be turning away from its traditional western outlook. But Mr Erdogan used his press conference after his meeting with Mr Obama as well as a speech in Washington to tell the international public that Turkey had not lost its way. Ankara says it is pursuing a more active foreign policy in an effort to establish itself as a regional power, a country "that sets the [political] agenda", as Mr Erdogan put it. Ankara pursues a vision of "zero problems" with all of the country's neighbours, coupled with an ambition to become a major economic power. Mr Erdogan told an audience at Johns Hopkins University in nearby Baltimore, Maryland, that Turkey would be among the world's 10 strongest economies in the year 2023, the 100th anniversary of the republic's founding.

"One must not lose the East while looking West, and one must not lose the West while looking East," Mr Erdogan said. "Turkey is strong enough to look in every direction." He said relations between Turkey and the United States, the leading western power, were a "model partnership". During their meeting, Mr Erdogan and Mr Obama decided to set up a high-level "strategic working group" to intensify economic ties between the two countries.

Turkey and the United States also underlined their common approach against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a rebel group that has been fighting against Ankara since 1984 and has its base in northern Iraq. Two years ago, Washington agreed to supply the Turks with intelligence information about PKK movements in the region. Now, Turkish newspapers quoted Mr Erdogan as saying "new measures" would come into effect. He did not say what those additional steps would include.

The Turkish-US "model partnership" has its limits, however. Despite a recent appeal by Mr Obama, Mr Erdogan did not promise Turkish combat troops for the war in Afghanistan, but stressed his country's existing efforts in training Afghan security forces. There are 1,750 Turkish troops in Afghanistan, but they do not have a combat mandate. tseibert@thenational.ae