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Iran election: The view from Istanbul

It’s been a wild few days in Iran. A hotly contested election. Large-scale protests that have not been seen in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. And a growing international backlash over the validity of the polls.

But here in Turkey, there is barely a whisper about their neighbor. Aside from a few cookie-cutter stories adapted from the wires, the Turkish press hasn’t had much to say on the controversial elections. The hub at local cafes is no different.

Maybe it’s the burden of domestic issues that are keeping people focused on issues closer to home. Or perhaps the glorious weather we’ve been having. Why think about Iran when you can go get a beer on the Galata Bridge?

Still, for a country that has always functioned as a counterweight to Persian power in the region, the reaction (or lack thereof) is somewhat surprising.

And Turkey has good reasons to care about what happens in Iran. The countries have close economic ties and cooperate in numerous ways, ranging from fighting terrorism (namely the PKK), drug trafficking, and promoting stability in Iraq and Central Asia. Then there is the fact that Ankara has been one of the main proponents of engagement with the regime in Iran, offering itself on several occasions as a mediator between Tehran and Washington.

The current situation puts Turkey in a somewhat awkward position. Ankara has worked hard to engage with its neighbors (many of whom are grossly unpopular in the West). At the end of the day, however, Turkey doesn’t want a nuclear Iran any more than anyone else. Independent strategists in Turkey have voiced concern about the victory of a person whose politics are based on anti-Westernism and who wants to make his country a nuclear power.

For now it looks like the Turks are biding their time, waiting to see how things play out before responding too aggressively. But if Ahmadinejad does stays in power — as most expect — Turkey is going to have to make some tough decisions about where to draw the line between its desire to be a regional mediator and its own security and values.

See here for an overview of local reaction around the world.