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What's Turkey Role in the Second Round of Iran Talks?

by HENRI J. BARKEY

09 Jan 2011 11:002 Comments

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[ Q&A ] w/ Henri J. Barkey, who served as a member of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff working primarily on issues related to the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, and intelligence from 1998 to 2000.

He has authored, co-authored, and edited five books, including Turkey's Kurdish Question with Graham Fuller, Reluctant Neighbor: Turkey's Role in the Middle East, and most recently, European Responses to Globalization: Resistance, Adaptation and Alternatives, and taught at Princeton, Columbia, the State University of New York, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Previous talks have always been in European venues, so why Istanbul for this second round of talks between Iran and the world's six major powers over Iran's controversial nuclear program?

Iran called for the talks to be held in Istanbul to reward Turkey -- and also Brazil, since President Ahmadinejad has announced the next meeting is supposed to be there -- for trying to negotiate a compromise on the Tehran Nuclear Reactor Deal in May 2010. Turkish officials will not be in the room in the January 2011 talks, but the Iranians are likely to praise Turkey's role in speeches before and after talks in the hopes of getting Ankara's support for its own position.

How might the Turkish venue impact the diplomatic dynamics of talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, or P5 +1?

It will have no impact on the dynamics of the negotiations.

In the past, what role has Turkey played in negotiations on Iran's nuclear program?

The Turks, in particular Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu, have tried to downplay the significance of Iran's nuclear program. Erdogan has even dismissed international suspicions that Tehran may want nuclear weapons as "gossip" and says he takes Iran at its word when it claims the program is only for peaceful nuclear energy.

Turkey and Brazil negotiated a deal with Iran in May 2010 just as the U.N. Security Council, including all five permanent members, was about to seek further sanctions against Tehran. The two rising powers proposed transmitting some 1,200 kilograms of Low Enriched Uranium to Turkey for safekeeping, but the P5+1 saw it as insufficient and a last-minute ploy by Iran to prevent a fourth round of punitive sanctions. For Turkey, it was a bittersweet deal because it undermined its position with the United States.

What role might Turkey play this time?

It will play no role as it is not participating in the meeting.

Does Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear to have any interest in playing a role, beyond host, given the nuclear deal he and his Brazilian counterpart negotiated in May 2010?

The Turks are uneasy about playing a role, given the failed May 2010 diplomatic effort and fears that they may be dragged into backing either side. Turkey has not even responded yet to the Iranian invitation to visit its nuclear sites. Iran's invitation to countries seen as being friendly to Tehran was designed to drive a wedge between them and the U.S. and European positions on Iran's nuclear program.

Erdogan was surprised by the P5+1 reaction to the Turkey-Brazil proposal on the Tehran Research Reactor and especially by President Obama's reaction. When they met in Toronto in June 2010, Obama told Erdogan in no uncertain terms that he was upset at the Turkish role and Ankara's subsequent decision to vote against a new U.N. sanctions resolution. So Erdogan is likely to be circumspect this time around. One can even imagine him wishing that the meeting would not take place in Istanbul.

What does hosting these talks do for Turkey's reputation and Erdogan's foreign policy ambitions?

The use of Istanbul as a venue is always good publicity. However, in this case, this is clearly an Iranian choice and Western powers did not object so as not to appear to be dismissive of Turkey. In an ironic way, Iran may be doing Turkey and Brazil a disfavor because the Istanbul talks will remind everyone of the previous diplomatic debacle in May 2010.

In a recent press conference, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the January talks in Istanbul, followed by February talks in Brazil and March talks in Tehran. That sequence has not been confirmed by other countries. What is he up to?

At this stage, these negotiations are pure theater. Nothing is expected to come out of them. Both sides are playing a game in which the object is to pretend to the audience -- the rest of the world -- that they mean well. For the Iranians, the goal is to gain time. For the six major powers, it is about building international consensus for the dual policy of talking and ratcheting up the measures that make it more difficult for Iran to achieve its nuclear goals.

The Americans and Europeans can already claim success because their policies have clearly caused substantive delays in the Iranian nuclear program.

Henri J. Barkey is chairman of Lehigh University's international relations department and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

related reading | see "nuclear dossier"

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2 Comments

"the P5+1 saw it as insufficient and a last-minute ploy by Iran to prevent a fourth round of punitive sanctions. For Turkey, it was a bittersweet deal because it undermined its position with the United States. "

The author misrepresents facts. First, Turkey and Brazil mediated their deal in February of 2010, only 3 and half months after 5p+1 deal in October of 2009. The author pretends the deal was made in May as a last ditch effort to stop the sanctions which is not true. The misrepresentation of the timing is crucial for the author's claim that the deal was a last attempt to avert sanctions. Second, the author omits the fact that the Turkish Foreign minister was in constant talks with his american counterpart to ensure the deal was acceptable to the US. The US rejection of the deal came as a surprise.

"Iran's invitation to countries seen as being friendly to Tehran was designed to drive a wedge between them and the U.S. and European positions on Iran's nuclear program."

Wrong!! Iran invited Turkey as well as the EU and many other countries and groups and reporters. Therefore, there is no logical evidence that Iran wanted to drive a wedge. The real story is that we are constantly barking at N. Korea for not giving any access, but we refuse to go to Iran when they do, in addition to their compliance with IAEA survaillance sanction's regime.

"The use of Istanbul as a venue is always good publicity."

Wrong again!! By holding the talks in Turkey and Brazil, Iran is highlighting the agreement the three nations had carved out and its rejection by the EU and US, thus, the duplicity of the entire matter.

"The Americans and Europeans can already claim success because their policies have clearly caused substantive delays in the Iranian nuclear program."

Iran just announced making Fuel Rods with its 20 enriched uranium, therefore where is the evidence of delays by the sanctions. Even the most anti-Iran website, PBS.ORG, has had reports that Iran's exports to EU are up, and its Imports are down.

The fact that this diplomat provides such poor information should serves us all as an indication as to why American diplomacy is at such a falling state worldwide today. It's a national disgrace.

Anonymous / January 10, 2011 10:07 AM

Intelligent readers such as Anonymous here are quick to see the lameness of this Anti-Iran Primer piece. How is it the editors of Tehran Bureau cannot?

Anything and everything that's anti-Iran is fit to publish here at TB. Sad. Really sad.

Pirouz / January 11, 2011 8:24 AM