By Mohammad Reza Yazdanpanah, Rooz Online
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyib Erdogan’s visit to Iran last week highlighted the differences between the two countries. While in Iran, Erdogan met Iran’s most senior leaders, including ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while holding talks with others as well.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyib Erdogan (L) met Iran's Supreme Leader ayatollah Khamenei in Mashhad, northeastern Iran
Coming directly from Seoul, South Korea, where he attended an international conference on nuclear energy in which US President Barrack Obama participated and made comments on Iran’s nuclear program, but also because he had private talks with Obama, Erdogan’s trip raised speculations that he may have brought a message from the US president to Iran’s leaders.
Turkish officials however dismissed the suggestion and the Prime Minister did not respond to questions on the subject in his press interview with Ahmadinejad’s first deputy.
But Erdogan’s entourage included the Turkish foreign minister, minister of economy, energy, the deputy of the national intelligence center, the deputy of the joint chief of staff, the head of the atomic energy agency, his wife and daughter, adding to speculations about the nature of talks held between the two sides.
The two central topics that were certainly the subject of discussion between the visiting delegation and Iranian officials are Iran’s nuclear program and the crises in Syria.
As Iran’s neighbor, Turkey has been supportive of Iran’s drive for nuclear technology but as a neighbor of Syria, it has serious differences with it over the crises in that country and has been calling for Bashar Assad to step down.
On his arrival, Erdogan was met by Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi at the airport and at Saadatabad Palace was officially welcomed by Ahmadinejad’s first deputy Mohammad-Reza Rahimi. The following day, he met Ahmadinejad and then flew to Mashhad where he met ayatollah Khamenei.
Tayyib Erdogan (L) with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R)
One Visit, Multiple Narratives
The Iranian media presented a friendly tone to the visit and meetings in Tehran and Mashhad but the remarks by ayatollah Khamenei and the Turkish media portrayed serious differences on at least two issues: Syria and Turkey’s participation in NATO’s missile defense shield program.
Iran’s supreme leader reportedly told the Turkish Prime Minister, “The Islamic republic strongly opposes any plans for Syria that originate in the US.” Stressing the country’s staunch support for Syria, he further said that Iran would support Syria because of that country’s frontline resistance role against Israel and “strongly opposes any involvement of foreign forces in Syria’s domestic affairs.” But he also said, “We support reforms in Syria but those that originate in that country must continue.”
The media’s portrayal in Iran and Turkey however on the relations between the two countries and what took place on this visit vary. Turkey’s media described the initial contacts between Erdogan and Rahimi and his talks with Majlis speaker Ali Larijani as tense.
Turkish media pointed out that after Erdogan met with Obama and other heads of state in Seoul and brought the Syrian dossier to Tehran, and despite his remarks in South Korea that it was not possible to not get involved in Syria, none of this was mentioned in his joint press conference with Rahimi after their meeting and most of the comments were about Iran’s nuclear program and trade between the two countries. The meeting between Erdogan and Ahmadinejad was postponed for the next day. Turkish media attributed this rescheduling of the meeting to differences between the two countries on Syria.
Another issue that was mentioned in news reports in Turkey was about the venue of the scheduled April 13 meeting between the 5+1 group of countries and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program. Erdogan had proposed Istanbul.
Differences between the Islamic republic and Turkey on Syria seem so deep that despite ayatollah Khamenei’s emphasis, Turkey was the host to the largest international meeting of countries that oppose Bashar Assad. Foreign ministers of more than 70 countries met to discuss ways to increase pressure on Assad’s regime and implement the proposed plan by the special UN envoy and the Arab League. The big achievement of the meeting for Syria’s opposition was the recognition of Syria’s National Council as the representative of the Syrian people. At the meeting, Erdogan emphasized that the legitimate demands of the Syrian people had to be met as soon as possible.
Turkey Reduces its Oil Purchases from Iran
Just a day after Erdogan’s trip to Tehran, the Turkish energy minister announced that his country was replacing part of its oil imports from Iran with Libyan oil. This change comes a week after Washington issued a warning to countries that purchased Iranian oil advising them that if they did not reduce their imports from Iran they could be face the penalties under US sanctions. Turkish channel 7 television network announced on Friday that this Turkish decision was because of US pressure.
The meeting in Tehran discussed the issue of Iran gas export prices to Turkey. Istanbul for the second time filed a case against Iran at the International Arbitration Court last year over Iran’s gas export price. Turkish media reported that the Iranian side told Turkey that Iran’s gas export price would not change. Iran and Turkey signed an agreement in 1996 for Iranian gas exports to Turkey. Despite this, both sides have pledged to expand their economic relations to 40 billion USD.
Erdogan’s trip to Tehran also created another contentious issue which was the Prime Minister’s interview with Iran’s state-run television station when he responded sternly to questions raised by reporters. When an Iranian reporter compared Syria’s opposition to Kurdish terrorist groups and told Erdogan that his country confronted Kurdish armed groups, the Prime Minister displayed his anger and asked, “Your question was not a good one. I do not fight my Kurdish compatriots. Don’t you fight the PKK and PJAK terrorist groups?” He then hit at Assad and said that the Syrian president did not allow for free elections in his country. He further said that Iran and Turkey should cooperate for free elections in Syria and should respect the will of the Syrian people. He even said that his government was against dictatorial and despotic regimes who suppress democratic principles and the law, saying that 17, 18 parties participated in Turkish elections.
Regarding questions about the missile defense shield in Turkey, Erdogan said, “Your analysis on this is wrong. This is a defensive radar installation and there is no offensive missile involved. It is also not the first time this is being installed. This is a reinstallation within NATO. But our Iranian friends continue to view it as a threat.” He also said that the decision to go ahead with the radar installations was Turkey’s and that it would request NATO to end it if so decided. Erdogan’s use of the word “Gulf” in reference to the Persian Gulf also brought forth the anger of some Iranian news sites.
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