Turkey’s Iran Shuttle Diplomacy

Speculating over whether the U.S.or Israel will launch military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program is a pretty crowded market these days, so I prefer to concentrate on reading the tea leaves about potential diplomatic solutions to the crisis. And if you look at who’s racking up the frequent flyer miles in the Middle East these days, there’s some thought-provoking possibilities. Fresh off his trip to Tehran, where he denied carrying a message to the Iranian leadership, Syrian President Bashir Assad decided to take a little seaside vacation in Bodrum, Turkey, where he will be joined by Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two will discuss the indirect Syrian-Israeli negotiations currently being mediated by Turkey, but also the Iranian nuclear program. Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be making a “working visit” to Istanbul where he will meet with Turkish President Abdullah Gul on the 14th. (The visit will not be an “official state visit” because Ahmadinejad apparently refused to visit the Ankara mausoleum of Turkey’s secular founder, Kemal Ataturk, as required by Turkish protocol.)

A spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry denied any Turkish role in mediating the conflict, but Ahmadinejad’s visit follows overlapping visits to Ankara last month by Iranian FM Manouchehr Mottaki and American National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. Those took place in the days preceding the Geneva talks between Javier Solana and Saeed Jalili attended by American diplomat William Burns. (Jalili’s first stop after that meeting was not Tehran, by the way, but Ankara, where he debriefed Turkish FM Ali Babacan.) Significantly, Hurriyet passes along a report by Turkish-language daily Vatan that President Bush objected to Ahmadinejad’s visit, but that Turkey basically brushed him off.

Clearly, despite the necessary denials, there’s something going on, although whether or not it will amount to anything is anyone’s guess. It could be that a Turkish mediation track will just fragment the P5+1 attempts to pin Iran down on the freeze for freeze offer laid out in Geneva. My hunch is that Iran will try to use Turkish mediation as a way to sell its counterproposal of a “grand bargain,” rather than moving forward on the P5+1 offer. By all indications, though, that’s not what the EU3 and Washington are waiting to hear.

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