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Erdogan and Obama: much to discuss

Iran, Afghanistan and Israel are just three of the topics the U.S. and Turkish leaders must cover Monday at the White House.

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington Dec. 7, 2009. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Whether it's a topic of discussion or not, Iran will likely be the 300-pound gorilla in the room when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on Monday.

The two leaders — each renowned for his particular brand of straight talk — are seeking strengthened ties at a time when both have weighty domestic and foreign agendas: for Erdogan, diplomatic engagement with Armenia and Iraq and Kurdish rights; and for Obama, deepening U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and ongoing concerns over Iran's nuclear program.

But the tenor of the meeting — the first one-on-one between the two leaders since Obama’s historic visit to Turkey this past April — is expected to reflect growing unease among U.S. officials with Turkey’s recent foreign diplomacy shifts, according to foreign policy analysts. For his part, Erdogan intends to tout his government's foreign policy activism and will be giving a series of speeches to Washington's foreign policy community.

“I’m a bit afraid that Erdogan is going to go into this meeting blindly, his shopping list of favors in hand, completely ignorant of the impression — right or wrong — that his recent actions have been giving many in the U.S.,” said Gareth Jenkins, a journalist, author and analyst based in Turkey.

Erdogan's coziness with Iran and Sudan, coupled with his harsh criticism of Israel, are feeding claims that Turkey is neglecting its tight U.S. alliance and abandoning the West in favor of a neo-Ottoman dominion in the East. Erdogan may be in Washington this week, but a month ago he was standing next to his “good friend” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran and defending Iran's nuclear program.

Erdogan will undoubtedly have a hard time explaining to Obama his reluctance to back new sanctions against Iran. Claims of brotherhood aside, Erdogan and Ahmadinejad are united in much more concrete terms by the great energy game. Turkey is set to invest $3.5 billion in Iran’s South Pars gas field, intended to ensure that Iran, as Turkey’s second biggest gas provider next to Russia, will have the ready supply to meet Turkey’s growing demand.

“The current government has a much more comfortable relationship with all of its Middle Eastern allies; they are as comfortable meeting in Tehran and Damascus as they are in Brussels and Washington,” said Ian Lesser, a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the Washington-based German Marshall Fund. “Iran, ultimately, will be the litmus test for Turkish-US ties.”

The Turks say they're seeking to become what Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu calls a “partner to solve the region's problems.” But other actions, such as Erdogan’s support of Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, claiming he couldn't possibly be guilty of genocide in Darfur because he's a “good Muslim,” have isolated many in Washington. Right now there are “more points of disagreement than of agreement” between Washington and Ankara, said Philip Gordon, Obama's point man on Turkey at the State Department.