A Turkish tale of two summits

Editor's note: Iran and the United States on Monday squared off over U.S.-led efforts to strengthen the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty during a treaty review conference at U.N. headquarters in New York.

The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, used the meeting to accuse the U.S. and other nuclear nations of trying to unfairly deny much of the world the possibility to pursue nuclear energy programs. The U.S., and importantly U.N.'s top leadership, gave Ahmadinejad a public scolding about his country's secretive nuclear program. Comments by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon — that called on Iran to cooperate more fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency and to comply fully with Security Council resolutions ordering it to stop reprocessing uranium, a key ingredient in a nuclear bomb — constituted an extraordinary rebuke of a head of state in the General Assembly hall. Ban also left the General Assembly hall for another meeting shortly before Ahmadinejad — the only head of state attending the nuclear conference — delivered his speech.

The U.N. conference is to review the 40-year-old pact to halt the spread of nuclear weapons-making capability, guarantee the right of all members to develop nuclear energy for peaceful ends and — for the original five nuclear weapons powers — to phase out their arsenals. President Barack Obama has put the treaty at the center of his nuclear agenda.

ISTANBUL, Turkey — It was a tale of two summits.

Iran, rebuked by the Obama administration and on the heels of the Washington nuclear security summit on April 12, held its own nuclear disarmament conference under the slogan “Nuclear Energy for All, Nuclear Weapons for No One.”

While Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended Obama's summit, Ankara chose to hedge its bets, sending Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Tehran a week later to express opposition to a new round of sanctions to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.

Such diplomatic double plays have come to characterize Turkey’s subtle maneuvering in order to balance its position as a traditional ally of the West with its rising profile in the Middle East.

Turkey hopes to mediate between Iran and the West in the row over Tehran’s nuclear program, but questions are beginning to surface as to which side of the fence Turkey — a U.S. ally and NATO member — will be on in any showdown with Iran.

Iran says its nuclear program is only for civilian use, but the West suspects that Tehran wants to build an atom bomb.

As one of the 10 rotating members of the U.N. Security Council, Turkey’s position matters. For a consensus on the use of sanctions in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, five of the council’s rotating members must vote in support of the sanctions. Turkey and Brazil (which also has a seat on the council) are firmly against ratcheting up such pressure on Iran. And China, a key trade partner of Iran and also a veto-weilding member of the Security Council, has maintained that it is against sanctions

Turkey’s balancing act runs the risk of straining Ankara's relations with Washington. If it comes down to a vote on sanctions, the U.S. has made it clear that it expects the support of its ally.

“Abstaining is not different from saying ‘no,’” the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, James Jeffery, told the Turkish press. “We need Turkey to vote ‘yes’ like other members of the U.N. Security Council.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in Tehran, meantime, that: “Tehran and Ankara can play a key role in regional and international developments by enhancing their cooperation and consultation.”

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long opposed any use of force against his Iranian neighbors, arguing that economic sanctions or military action against Iran would have a damaging impact on the whole region. With pressure building in the West to introduce new economic sanctions against Iran though, Turkey has been feverishly working to settle the nuclear row diplomatically.

“Turkey, like Iran, wants all nuclear weapons to be eradicated from the world and especially from the [Middle East] region, and the recent conference in Tehran can be an important step for realizing this goal,” Davutoglu reportedly said during a meeting with Ahmadinejad in Tehran early last week.

Turkey's stance on Iran is not new. Just after the election of Barack Obama as America's president, Erdogan announced his wish for Turkey to be a "mediator between the new Obama administration and Iran."

With the rise in 2002 of Turkey's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, relations with Iran have grown increasingly strong. Erdogan was one of the first leaders to congratulate the Iranian president on his controversial election victory last year.

The two countries also share deepening economic ties.

Trade between the two countries hit an estimated $10 billion in 2009, compared with $1 billion in 2000. Iran also supplies nearly a third of Turkey's gas.

“The AKP is the most market-oriented government Turkey has ever had,” said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “And with the tremendous market potential of Iran, Ankara is going to be very hesitant to do anything that will put them out of favor with Tehran.”

And despite warming relations between the two neighbors, Ankara has its own fears about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“If Iran continues on this path there is long-term potential for cascading nuclear proliferation and regional instability,” said Ian Lesser, an expert on Turkey and Iran at the Washington-based German Marshall Fund. “I see no good news for Turkey coming from Iran’s current position.”

If their efforts to resolve this crisis through mediation fail, Turkey is likely to face a tough choice between historic Western alliances and newfound friends in Tehran.

“It is clear that if he [Davutoglu] can pull it off and ease the international tension over Iran, then both his and Turkey’s international prestige will increase greatly,” wrote Semih Idiz, a Turkish columnist, in the Turkish paper Hurriyet Daily News. “But if he cannot, then Turkey will not just have been isolated in NATO and Europe, but will also end up having been used by Iran to buy time against the West.”