It is quite understandable that Israel would be deeply disappointed by Turkey's decision to invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for an official visit this week. In Israel's view, such a visit will only further legitimize a leader who is reviled for his denial of the Holocaust and for his repeated existential threats to the state of Israel. The question, however, should not be how much legitimacy Mr. Ahmadinejad may garner from this visit, but whether Turkish officials could potentially engender something positive out of this foray that could benefit not only Turkey but the entire region including Israel.
Turkish-Iranian bilateral relations are extensive and are growing in importance not only because Iran is a major player in the Middle East, but due to expanding trade relations between the two nations. Their bilateral trade jumped from $1.5 billion in 2000 to $4 billion in 2004 and is expected to exceed $7 billion in 2008. Turkey imports approximately 20% of it gas consumption from Iran and in 2007 signed a memorandum of understanding to build a pipeline designed to transport up to 40 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe. Further expansion of the bilateral relations which may culminate with Ahmadinejad's visit may include financial, banking and other commercial enterprises. Turkish officials do insist, however, that the growing bilateral relations do not obscure the fact that Turkey is concerned over Iran's nuclear program, and Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has expressed interest in mediating future negotiations with Iran.
The seven year effort by the Bush administration to isolate Iran and punish it for its alleged nuclear weapons program has basically failed. Why not try other avenues? Is it possible that Turkey, as a neighbor with shared interests and concerns over regional security and stability of the region and with superior cultural understanding may be in a better position to appeal to Iranian senses? The meetings between Prime Minister Erdogan and Ahmadinejad could provide Turkish officials with a better insight into the real Iranian position and thinking on the nuclear issue. And if there is one chance that Turkey could in fact defuse the nuclear stand-off is it not worth taking it? To suggest that the visit is entirely counterproductive misses the whole point. For Turkey the stakes are extremely high; the Turkish government is terrified of yet another avoidable war that could engulf the region and they have an obligation to do everything they can to avert a catastrophe. Ahmadinejad's visit to Turkey may have the effect of elevating his stature, but by inviting him to Turkey and according him the respect he seeks, Ankara will be in a much stronger position to deal with the nuclear issue. Turkey knows well Israel's deep concerns over national security. Turkish-Israeli bilateral relations go back nearly 60 years and are wide-ranging and growing. Other than trade and cultural relations there exists extensive military and strategic cooperation between the two nations. In addition, Turkey is currently involved in mediating between Israel and Syria and should the negotiations conclude successfully, they would have far-reaching regional implications. Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has asked Turkish officials to help Damascus allay Tehran's concerns over the Israeli-Syrian negotiations. To be sure, Turkey is playing a significant role with all major players in the region and speaks with a credible voice. Turkey, at this juncture, is better equipped than the EU or the United States to influence Iran's conduct on the nuclear quandary. The Turkish government can make Ahmadinejad understand that Israel takes his threats seriously and that the future wellbeing of Iran and the whole region depends on achieving a diplomatic solution to the nuclear impasse.
Although Ahmadinejad sought this visit in efforts to break off his isolation and defy the Bush administration, the Turkish government could utilize the visit to change the dynamic of the negotiations between P5+1 and Iran. Obviously Tehran has not responded well to public threats, intimidations and sanctions. As a proud nation the Iranians go on the offensive when humiliated and prefer to deal with sensitive issues secretively which offers room for deniability. A secret channel for the negotiations between Turkey and Iran could become a critical venue for future talks on the nuclear issue. While the P5+1 negotiations should continue, the United States can use a channel through Turkey to convey to Tehran the dire consequences it may face should it persist in the enrichment of uranium. What can be said privately with credibility will be taken far more seriously by the clergy in Tehran, without the public humiliation. Ahmadinejad continues to enjoy the full support of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. What Ahmadinejad hears from the Turks on this visit or in subsequent talks will resonate differently in Iran and will be conveyed to Khamenei much more seriously than a message from any other party could be.
Israel's reservations and concerns over Ahmadinejad's visit not withstanding, the visit has the potential to move the nuclear issue from dead center and open up new opportunities to end Iran's nuclear problem which has eluded the West for more than seven years.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. www.alonben-meir.com
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