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Erdogan gambit may succeed, or fail spectacularly
U.S. FRIEND: The Turkish premier seeks to prevent a military intervention against Iran, writes Sinan Ulgen
TURKISH Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken on a daunting challenge. After participating in the nuclear-security summit in South Korea at the end of last month, he went to Teheran to urge Iran's leaders to make a deal during the next round of nuclear talks between Iran and the United Nations Security Council's five permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) plus Germany. And Erdogan will host those talks in Istanbul this month.
Erdogan last travelled to Teheran in 2010 to finalise an agreement that he had negotiated under which Iran was to send large quantities of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for nuclear fuel for Iran's research reactor.
The deal, mediated by Turkey and Brazil, was presented to the rest of the world as a groundbreaking confidence-building initiative.
But the US and its allies quickly rejected the agreement as an Iranian ploy designed to halt the growing momentum for additional sanctions.
Turkey's insistence on pressing ahead with the deal caused tension with the US and fuelled criticism at home and abroad that Erdogan's government was shifting away from its longstanding alliance with the West.
The memory of this short-lived crisis with the US is still fresh in Turkish government circles. So why, despite having burned his fingers two years ago, is Erdogan taking up the issue again? What did he hope to accomplish in Teheran?
Much has changed in the Middle East during the past two years, and not to Turkey's advantage. As a result, it is now seeking to contain a rapidly deteriorating regional security situation.
Given this, Turkey's goal now is to prevent a military intervention against Iran.
From Turkey's perspective, an Israeli or American strike against Iran's nuclear facilities would destabilise the region further, as Iran would undoubtedly retaliate by fuelling sectarian tensions and undermining the prospects of a settlement in both Syria and Iraq.
As a result, Turkey wants to prolong, at all costs, the time available for diplomacy. But Erdogan's goal was more modest this time than it was in 2010, because Turkey does not want to play the role of mediator and will not seek to negotiate the details of an agreement.
Instead, Erdogan emphasised to his Iranian counterparts the international community's resolve to bring transparency to Iran's nuclear programme, and insisted on the importance of concrete progress in the next round of the nuclear talks.
He warned that Iranian intransigence would doom the talks to failure, raising the prospects of yet another military confrontation in the Middle East.
In particular, he stressed the need for Iran to offer a gesture of goodwill about its nuclear programme.
The Iranian regime should, at the very least, commit itself to halt uranium enrichment at 20 per cent, a figure short of the threshold needed to produce weapons.
Paradoxically, however, Erdogan's task, while more modest than in 2010, is also more difficult, owing to the prospect of new sanctions against Iran, including a ban on oil exports, that are to enter into force in July.
Moreover, US President Barack Obama, facing an election in November, does not wish to be accused of being soft on Iran, making it difficult for the West to reciprocate potential Iranian overtures.
Yet Erdogan's best ally in his risky gambit may be the US consumer. Faced with rising gasoline prices as a result of the crisis with Iran, Americans' concerns about the cost of driving have contributed to Obama's shaky popularity ratings.
Thus, the Obama administration may find it more politically expedient to seek a deal with Iran.
If Iran decides to engage the international community with concrete confidence-building measures at the next round of multilateral talks, Erdogan will take much of the credit for giving diplomacy a last chance, and quite possibly for averting a military confrontation in the Middle East. Project Syndicate
Sinan Ulgen is chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank