x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Turkish leaders frustrated with Tehran's nuclear vacillation

Ankara faces a critical test as the row over Iran's nuclear programme continues to dominate debate within the international community.

ISTANBUL //Turkey's leaders are getting increasingly frustrated with what they see as either the unwillingness or inability of the regime in Tehran to come up with a consistent answer to the demands of the international community regarding its nuclear programme, diplomats say.

Istanbul rejects the the imposition of new sanctions against Iran, though pressure on Tehran increased this week as the US president, Barack Obama, said he was hoping that new sanctions would be imposed within weeks, rather than months. Turkey, which currently holds a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, says it has not decided how to vote if a resolution calling for new sanctions comes to the table. Iran says its nuclear programme has purely peaceful aims, but the West - and Turkey - suspect Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

As the largest Muslim member of Nato and with close relations to the West as well as to Middle East countries, Turkey sees itself as a potential regional leader and as an honest broker in political disputes. The row about the Iranian nuclear programme represents a critical test for Ankara's ambition. Differing sharply from their western counterparts, Turkey's leaders have publicly defended Iran's right to pursue a peaceful nuclear programme, pointing to Israel's unacknowledged nuclear weapons arsenal. "Are there nuclear weapons in this region? Yes, there are," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, told reporters in Ankara this week, referring to Israel. "But are there any sanctions? No, there are not."

Mr Erdogan renewed his rejections of sanctions, reflecting Ankara's concern that they could hurt Turkey as well. Iran and Turkey share a border of almost 40km, and Iran is Turkey's most important supplier of natural gas after Russia. "I think we will be able to find a solution" to the nuclear row without having to resort to sanctions, Mr Erdogan added. But behind public statements calling for compromise and restraint lies a growing sense of disappointment with Iran's conduct in its negotiations with the international community, represented by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, as well as Germany.

"Everyone is getting frustrated," said a high-ranking Turkish diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "That frustration is reaching Turkey as well." The diplomat said there was a feeling that the Iranians are "wasting our time". Mr Erdogan is also getting impatient, the diplomat said. Turkish diplomats dealing with the Iran issue say one of the difficulties is that internal divisions in Tehran make it hard to fathom who is having the last word and what the final Iranian position is.

Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, was quoted by Forbes magazine last week as saying he believes the Iranians really are after a nuclear bomb and that this would trigger an arms race in the region. He added it was unlikely that Iran would use such a device and that he had warned Iran's leaders against "problems" that Iran would face if they start to act in an "irrational manner". Ankara has invested a considerable amount of prestige in its unique role in the nuclear row, offering its territory as a place to store Iranian uranium in a possible deal between Tehran and the international community. But Iran has rejected such a compromise.

"There was a deal, and they didn't take it," the diplomat said. In February, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, travelled to Tehran. According to press reports, Mr Davutoglu asked the Iranians to suspend nuclear enrichment, but nothing came of the initiative. Ankara's efforts to try to play a mediating role have triggered concerns in the West that Turkey may be turning away from its traditional western outlook.

But Turkey rejects that interpretation. "Behind closed doors, we have been conveying the same messages as our western partners," the diplomat said. "We believe we are more credible if we do it that way." Despite recent tensions with the United States over the question of the Armenian genocide, Mr Erdogan has hinted that he will travel to a conference in Washington on nuclear security in two weeks.

"Everybody is trying their best to convince Iran to address the nuclear issue, and Turkey is doing its share as well," the Turkish diplomat stressed. "We do hope that Iran understands that there has to be some positive development." tseibert@thenational.ae