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Visit raises speculation over Turkish mediated U.S.-Iran talks

'The term mediation is used at times,' Turkey's Foreign Minister Ali Babacan says before leaving for Iran. 'This will only be realized if a concrete request is made by both sides.'

March 10, 2009|Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim

BEIRUT AND TEHRAN — Turkey's foreign minister arrived in Tehran on Monday for a long-scheduled economic summit amid speculation that his government could help open diplomatic contacts between Iran and the United States.

Foreign Minister Ali Babacan arrived in the Iranian capital to attend the annual Economic Cooperation Organization summit just days after discussing Iran with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"The term 'mediation' is used at times," Babacan told reporters in Ankara, the Turkish capital, before departing for Iran, according to the Turkish newspaper Sabah. "This will only be realized if a concrete request is made by both sides. We could contribute to the furthering of relations between the two nations to a positive level."

Turkey has been flexing its diplomatic muscle and reemerging as a potent force on the landscape of the Middle East after orienting itself toward the West for much of the 20th century.

Ankara, under the rule of moderate Islamists after being dominated for 80 years by secular nationalists close to the military, mediated indirect talks between Israel and Syria that were suspended late last year after the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip.

The U.S. hopes to reach out diplomatically to Tehran's leadership as a way of convincing the Iranians to redirect their nuclear program away from potential military uses and to stop their support for militant opponents of Israel.

Clinton told Turkey's Kanal D television last week that the Obama administration welcomed any Turkish efforts to help sway the Islamic Republic. "You know the Iranians better than we do," she said. "You have shared a border for -- I think I was told over 350 or so years. So we are going to ask for your help in trying to influence Iranian behavior."

Turkey's relations with neighboring Iran have blossomed since the emergence of the moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party as Turkey's dominant political force early in the decade. Trade between the two countries totaled $10 billion last year, up 25% from 2007.

Turkey is the only country Iranians can visit without obtaining a visa.

Some experts believe Turkey could use its rising clout with Iran to influence its policies or serve as a mediator as it did between Syria and Israel.

"Iran sees Turkey as a gateway to the West," said Emrullah Uslu, an analyst specializing in Turkish affairs at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank. "Turkey's role in such talks would be a critical asset."

By playing such a role Turkey would bolster its status as a regional power to be reckoned with as well as enhance its trade ties. "What Turkey is planning to get out of any deal between Israel and Syria, or Iran and the U.S., is more stability and more economic growth for Turkey," he said.

But others said involvement of Turkey or any other third party could hamper rather than help talks between Iran and the U.S.

"The Iranians and Americans both know how to contact each other, how to communicate to one another," said Mohammad Marandi, the head of the North American studies department at Tehran University. "They do not really need a third party to intervene."

During the Israeli-Syria talks, representatives from each country were in different rooms of the same hotel as Turkish officials relayed messages back and forth. The Israelis have for decades wanted a peace deal with Syria, which in turn has wanted the return of the Golan Heights, a highland seized by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War.

Analysts said such a negotiating mechanism could be risky when discussing an immediate concern like Iran's nuclear enrichment program, which is advancing steadily. Iran and the U.S. also need to quickly build up trust after decades of hostility.

"Given the sensitivities here, I think the U.S. would want to start with a direct dialogue with lower-level officials on issues that are less controversial, like Afghanistan," said F. Stephen Larrabee, a European and Middle East security expert at Rand Corp.

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daragahi@latimes.com

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