Senior policy-makers in Washington are caught up in the naïve belief that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan must soon come to his senses. Then, he will understand his country's rightful place is alongside the US and he will mend relations and make up his quarrel with Israel.
This belief led President Barack Obama to an interview on Sunday, Dec. 19 with one of Turkey's biggest newspapers, Hurriyet, and an effort to repair the damage caused by WikiLeaks' revelation of what US diplomats really think of Erdogan, his foreign minister Ahmet Davutogul and their imperial Ottoman aspirations.
The US president said, "Our partnership is resilient, and we agreed that the irresponsible acts of WikiLeaks do not threaten it." Obama then called on America's two allies, Turkey and Israel, to bury the hatchet and "find an acceptable way forward."
These hopes are not anchored in reality, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Ankara.
Erdogan and Davutoglu are taking advantage of what they see as American naiveté to strength Ankara's ties with Tehran and Damascus and push ahead with their joint plans for a new Muslim East bloc encompassing Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan as well as Iran, Turkey, Syria and, possibly, one day, Egypt when President Hosni Mubarak is finally out of the way.
In his swearing-in speech Saturday, Dec. 18, Iran's new foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi emphasized that his first priority was the development of ties with his country's neighbors and within the Islamic world, singling out Saudi Arabia and Turkey for their "special position."
Strengthening Islam's global standing
This statement underlined how perfectly Tehran and Ankara are coordinated. Both are certain that once their Muslim bloc gobbles up most of the countries situated between Iran and Turkey, the standouts will be squeezed into joining too.
As he spoke, Salehi prepared to accompany President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a working visit to Istanbul Wednesday night, Dec. 22 – officially, to attend the 11th Economic Cooperation Organization summit at the regional headquarters of the ECO, of which Iran and Turkey are founding members. Members too are Pakistan, Afghanistan and several Central Asian countries.
Unofficially, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, Iranian and Turkish leaders will use the chance to work on a common front against he Six Powers (Five UN SC members plus German) before nuclear talks resume in Istanbul next month.
The secret transmissions exchanged between the two capitals describe their advance consultations as necessary "to tighten cooperation between the Muslim countries in order to strengthen Islam and its global standing."
Ahmadinejad went straight into a one-on-one meeting with Erdogan as soon as he landed, joined later by their foreign ministers and aides for a discussion of the new Muslim bloc and the boosting of bilateral trade – a euphemism for boosting Turkey's input for helping Iran evade international sanctions.
(See separate item in this issue: Tehran Builds a Financial Buffer Ready for Nuclear Talks to Fail.)
Turkey uses nuclear talks as stepping stone to world-class status
Loth to go head on head on sanctions against the West – especially the US, the Erdogan government undertakes publicly to abide by the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council without however recognizing the unilateral penalties applied by America and Europe.
This leaves Ankara plenty of room for maneuver.
The Erdogan government will follow the same strategy for the dialogue on Iran's nuclear program.
The Turks will pose simply as hosts – and nothing more. In fact, Foreign Minister Davutoglu, with Washington's consent, will play the role of busy bee for getting low-level US, Iranian, European and Turkish diplomats together for preliminary discussions, with the object of presenting the full-dress talks with decisions already in the bag.
This process will promote Turkey to the rank of world class power, the equal of the other six.
The Obama administration calculates that Iran's diplomatic and economic leverage has been whittled down and the Islamic Republic will have to make concessions on its nuclear program. Tehran, for its part, has no such intention but rather plans to spin the negotiations out to gain more time for progress towards its nuclear objectives. Therefore, the stalemate ending the first round of talks in Geneva earlier this month is unlikely to dissolve in Istanbul.
Tehran and Ankara: A mutual leverage society against the West
Just as the Erdogan regime has gained world-class status from its bond with Iran, Tehran has been immensely strengthened by the wholehearted support it has gained from Ankara.
On Thursday, December 16, Shia Muslims marked the annual Day of Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, at the Battle of Karbala on October 2, 680 CE, 1400 years ago.
Incredibly, Erdogan, a devout Sunni Muslim, led an Ashura procession in Ankara emulating the Shiite mourning ceremonies in Tehran. His action was the first by any Turkish leader after 500 years during which the Persian Shiites were considered the sworn enemies of the Sunni Turks of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish prime minister also delivered a fiery speech at the ceremony declaring that the bloody conflict between Shiite and Sunni must be transformed into cooperation and unity of action for the glory of Islam.
Citing a well-known Turkish adage, he said that if bitter can be turned sweet, so too can religious hatred be transmuted into friendship and cooperation.
Then, on Tuesday, Dec. 21, Davutoglu, with Erdogan standing by his side, welcomed Syrian Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Otri with the words, "Welcome home" – a gesture signaling that Ankara and Damascus are one and the same country with no national or religious differences dividing them.
Shortly before Ahmadinejad arrived in Istanbul, the Turkish prime minister and foreign minister led the second session of the Turkish-Syrian High-level strategic Council session.
Washington and Jerusalem are still willing to buy Erdogan's pose as a valued middle man with unparalleled connections for acting as a bridge between the West and Tehran, Sunni and Shiite Muslims. However, in the views of the most seasoned Middle East observers, his commitment to the radical side of the Muslim world and the Middle East has gone too far for such illusions to be entertained any longer. For now, the Turkish prime minister is simply using their trust, some say their naiveté, to promote his far-reaching ambitions.