Turkey hosts nuclear talks for Iran, U.N. Security Council members, Germany

January 20, 2011

ISTANBUL - Turkey again took on the challenge of facilitating discussion between Iran and the international community when Iranian officials and representatives of the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members and Germany convened Friday for nuclear talks in Istanbul.

Turkey's official role during the talks is that of host, as the European Union's foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, emphasized last week in a preparatory visit to Istanbul. "The negotiations began with the P5-plus-1, and we are right to continue the way that we have started," Ashton said.

Nevertheless, Turkey's involvement in Iranian nuclear talks represents an important part of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's efforts in the Middle East.

Ankara has been striving to attain greater influence in the region, chiefly through pursuit of Davutoglu's policies of "zero problems with neighbors" and "strategic depth." The two-pronged approach focuses on working through points of contention with neighboring countries to promote regional stability and prosperity.

"Turkey has the most to lose if the situation in the region gets worse," said Arzu Celalifer Ekinci, a Middle East policy analyst.

In May, Turkey and Brazil brokered the Tehran Declaration, a nuclear fuel swap deal, on the eve of a Security Council vote on sanctions against Iran. The United States and its European partners rejected the deal, arguing that it came too late and offered too little: The amount of enriched uranium to be swapped was inadequate, they said, and the declaration would hinder a new round of sanctions.

The rebuff prompted Turkey to temporarily curtail its nuclear mediation efforts. "When the voices criticizing Turkey's involvement in the Iranian nuclear talks grew louder, Turkey chose, as it should have, to back off a bit while still continuing its efforts," Ekinci said.

Bilateral relations between Turkey and Iran, however, remain relatively close as Ankara seeks to increase trade and regional cooperation with Iran. Davutoglu and his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, met Tuesday to discuss not only the nuclear negotiations but also the recent developments in Lebanon.

Turkey's increased involvement, not just with Iran but throughout the Middle East, has become a cornerstone of the country's more hands-on approach to foreign policy.

Turkey's efforts to help resolve the crisis in Lebanon have included joining Syria and Qatar for a trilateral meeting in Damascus, as well as a trip to Beirut by Davutoglu. That mediation attempt was suspended Thursday.

Turkey was also a facilitator of the Syrian-Israeli talks last year, although that effort also proved unsuccessful. Turkey's own relations with Israel soured in June after an Israeli raid on a Turkish aid ship headed to the blockaded Gaza Strip resulted in the deaths of nine Turks.

Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel, but the two countries maintain close economic ties. Foreign Ministry officials have not ruled out normalizing relations if Israel agrees to apologize for the raid and offer compensation to the families of the victims.

Davutoglu has repeatedly stressed that his "zero problems with neighbors" policy extends to all of Turkey's neighbors.

That policy is "great in theory, but very difficult in practice," Ekinci said.

Tuysuz is a special correspondent.

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