Determined to command the respect he regards as his due, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan flew into Tehran from Seoul Wednesday, March 28, aboard a special plane and with all the trappings of the head of a superpower, including a huge retinue.
He also made much of the fact that his journey was in consequence of his meeting with President Barack Obama in the South Korean capital Sunday, March 25. Erdogan therefore looked forward to being awarded full honors – not just as an important world leader but as a statesman uniquely authorized to speak on behalf of the US President and the formidable lineup of five more major world nations which Iran is destined to face on April 13 for high-powered nuclear negotiations.
A fleet of special Turkish planes ferried his retinue from Istanbul and Ankara, touching down at Tehran airport at precisely the same moment as their prime minister. Aboard were the Turkish ministers for foreign affairs, energy, economy, urban development and the environment, as well as Turkish intelligence and military officers and the head of Turkey’s Atomic Energy Organization.
But the Iranians did not fall over themselves to show their visitor admiring respect; quite the opposite.
The Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not on hand to greet him as Erdogan expected, but only Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who quickly set about cooling the visitor’s expectations.
He accomplished this by confirming to the Iranian and Turkish journalists waiting at the airport that the nuclear talks between Iran and the Six Powers were indeed scheduled to begin on April 13, but their venue was not yet final.
A cold welcome and a runaround
Salehi thus went back on his previous announcement of Istanbul as the venue. By throwing cold water on Ankara’s expectations, the Iranian foreign minister put Erdogan on notice that it is up to him to make the running on the nuclear and other key issues on Tehran’s side before he can hope to host the key negotiations.
That was just for starters.
The visitor’s list of official appointments was then released. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the man he came to see, was not on it.
Erdogan was booked only to see Ahmadinejad and parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, neither of whom make the nuclear decisions in Tehran. He had to wait until Wednesday evening to be told that Khamenei would deign to see him if he presented himself at the Shiite Iman Reza shrine in Mashhad, a thousand kilometers north east of the capital near the Afghan border, a long journey for the ailing Turkish prime minister who also happens to be a devout Sunni Muslim.
He had little choice but to dance to the Iranian tune because just meeting the president was good for nothing more than a photo op but not much else.
The influential Iranian commentator, Sadeq Zibakalam, wrote this week: I believe Ahmadinejad still has some cards to play. Apparently, his biggest card is not to make waves in the time left him as president, another year and a half, and so avoid his impeachment… Establishing a mass political party is not the same as rabble-rousing. It requires organization which is not in Ahmadinejad’s nature… He may run for parliament and get himself elected… but he won’t get the office of speaker… In the near future Ahamadinejad will be lucky to be elected a member of parliament.
Turkey sends Syrian rebels their first anti-tank weapons
For the ayatollahs, grinding the Turkish leader’s face in the dust was not just an end in itself. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources reveal they had a more palpable grievance.
Saturday night, March 24, just hours before Erdogan met Obama, Turkey began for the first time in the year-long Syrian uprising to pump heavy hardware – mostly anti-tank weapons – to the rebels fighting Iran’s closest ally. These arms have been withheld from the Syrian opposition by the Americans – and even by their Saudi and the Qatari backers.
Erdogan’s military and intelligence advisers acted less out of sympathy with the cruel drubbing the Syrian rebels had taken in the past three weeks at the hands of Assad’s troops – much more in anger over the information incoming to the Turkish MIT intelligence service that the Syrian ruler had crossed a red hot Turkish line: He had renewed the Assad clan’s historic bonds with the anti-Turkish PKK Kurdish rebel group.
More than half of the Turkish PKK’s 9,000 fighting men are Syrian Kurds, including their military chief Murat Karayilan.
Two results of reviving the 35-year old Assad-PKK alliance were soon discernible on the Syrian-Turkish border and in the Syria Kurdish regions from mid-March:
1. An increasing number of armed Kurdish terrorist cells began pouring into Turkey from Syria. MIT watchers noted that these cells were not formed on the Syrian side but came ready-made from PKK strongholds in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq.
This meant that Bashar Assad had gone to the extreme lengths of opening up Syrian borders with both Iraq and Turkey for the through passage of Kurdish terrorists.
No honor in Tehran as Obama’s go-between
2. On President Assad’s sayso, Syrian military intelligence has permitted the anti-Turkish PKK to set up local command centers in Syrian Kurdish cities – Kamishli, Ifran, Tel Al-Arabi and others. They are located at the local branches of the PDK, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party.
The logistical cooperation between the Turkish PKK and the Syrian PDK has had a powerful effect on Syria’s Kurdish minority, giving them a motive to downgrade their protests against President Assad.
3. This clandestine tit-for-tat ongoing between Ankara and Damascus has upset important international apple carts and set up a new source of havoc, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report.
Assad has put himself in the middle of Ankara’s internal struggle against the PKK and managed to cut the Syrian Kurds out of the uprising against his regime; Turkey is paying him back by giving Syrian rebels anti-tank weapons.
So after Tehran and Moscow finally managed by combined efforts to stabilize the Assad regime and help him nail an armed rebellion – albeit not popular dissent, Ankara put in its oar to blunt the edges of his victory and provide the rebels with the weapons for launching another round on the battlefield.
Iran has spent many billions on shoring up the survival of the Assad regime and the Syrian economy against a major popular uprising. It has sent thousands of Iranian military, intelligence, cyber warfare and drone warfare personnel and civilian experts to fight on its behalf.
There is no way Tehran will put up with the Turks undoing all those efforts.
For now, the Turkish prime minister might have to forget about winning honor in Tehran as President Obama’s chosen go-between.