Is Turkey an Iran Backchannel?

I almost flagged a story in the Turkish press the other day about Iranian FM Manouchehr Mottaki heading to Ankara for talks with his Turkish counterpart, Ali Babacan, mainly because talking to Turkey seems to be synonymous with backchannel negotiations of late. I held off, because it seemed like a stretch. But as Laura Rozen reports in Mother Jones, the story takes on some added significance when Stephen Hadley turns up in Ankara the day before Mottaki:

One wonders, is Turkey hosting some sort of pre pre-negotiations now between the US and Iran?

The Turkish press certainly seems to think so, possibly because that’s what Ali Babacan told them:

“Both Iran and the countries who prepared the (incentives) package want Turkey to somehow be involved in the issue… We have been holding talks with all sides for a while in an unidentified framework,” Ali Babacan told in an interview with broadcaster NTV. He declined to give further details on the potential role of Turkey.

Laura’s sources gave conflicting signals, and an informed European diplomat I spoke to told me he’s unaware of any Turkish role. But Turkey’s active participation, maybe to prepare a post pre-negotiation climate, would make sense.

It’s worth noting, too, that in the English-language Iranian press, William Burns’ presence in Geneva tomorrow is being framed as an American decision to negotiate with Iran without pre-conditions. The same sentence appears in both this Press TV article (in which Ayatollah Khamenei declares that Iran will never agree to renounce its enrichment capacity), and this Fars article (which claims that the U.S. is considering direct talks with Iran):

The US State Department, however, announced on Saturday that Tehran may enter negotiations without initially suspending uranium enrichment.

Of course, that’s not at all what the State Dept. announced, but if that’s what it takes for everyone involved to save face and come to the table, it seems like a small price to pay.

Finally, Laura also points out, via some informed sources, that at least part of what’s driving the apparent shift in the U.S. posture is the impact rising tensions have had on the price of oil, a dynamic that plays directly into Iran’s hands. Kevin Drum has been wondering why there seems to be so little reaction to the possible opening of a U.S. interests section in Tehran, and I think the answer to that question is that globally speaking, it’s a pretty opaque situation right now. There’s a lot of signalling going on, but just what is being signalled and why is pretty much speculation. And while the signalling might be a necessary factor for any eventual engagement, it’s not a sufficient or decisive one.