Non-volatile affairs in volatile region

Non-volatile affairs in volatile region

As the common journalist/diplomat/politician cliché goes, ours may be “one of the world’s most volatile regions.” But not always.

In 2006, the Turks, Americans and Iraqi Kurds agreed on a trilateral mechanism that would have finished off the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). After a year, countless visits and exchange visits, high-level meetings and scores of PKK attacks ridiculing that mechanism, the Turks, Americans and Iraqis decided to devise an action plan against the PKK.

My guess at that time was that the ruthless action plan would include punishing measures like 1) From now on, PKK men who kill Turkish soldiers will not be congratulated; 2) The monthly explosives ration for the PKK will be reduced from five tons to 4.8 tons; 3) In wintertime, the rent for the caves in northern Iraqi mountains that shelter PKK men will be increased by three dollars per month; 4) The Öcalan Cultural Center in Baghdad, now 500 meters away from the Turkish embassy, will be moved to a new location at least 750 meters away from the embassy’s premises; 5) The PKK men will be instructed not to kill more than six Turkish troops at one time; 6) Wounded PKK men will be given only second-class medical treatment, not first class; 7) After every PKK attack against Turkish targets, condolences will be conveyed to Ankara (“Is the world really flat?” Hürriyet Daily News, May 25, 2007).

Inevitably, after five years, more visits and exchange visits, high-level meetings and even more PKK attacks, I recalled my guess when last week Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke of what other U.S. officials have been speaking of since 2006: intelligence sharing, unmanned aerial vehicles, attack helicopters, cooperation against terror and all other possible words of hope to finish off the PKK. But the “Iran talk,” as reported in local and international press, looked even more familiar.

In 2005, a teasing article in British humor newspaper Private Eye said that “America and Britain today gave a stark warning to Iran that unless it curbs its nuclear ambitions they will do nothing. ‘The fact that…’ the article quoted President George W. Bush as saying, ‘… unlike Iraq, Iran actually will have weapons of mass destruction means that both Tony (Blair) and I are committed to doing nothing…’”

The policy of kowtowing to the Iranians goes back to late 1980s when Sir Geoffrey Howe, then British foreign secretary, attempted to establish a constructive dialogue with the mullahs in what proved a futile effort to persuade Tehran to free British hostages in Lebanon. As part of this policy, the British government took the controversial decision to drop its claim that the Iranians had masterminded the Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people in 1988, even though the British intelligence uncovered significant evidence of Iranian involvement. And in 2005, Britain, along with France and the Persia-philic Germany, advocated that the best way to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program was to pursue a “negotiated solution.”

With Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta set to follow Mr. Biden to Turkey soon, it means that two Washington bigwigs will have visited Ankara to talk about, among others, Iran twice in a month. Just like six years ago! In 2005, Stephen Hadley, national security advisor to President Bush and Robert Joseph, the top state department official for non-proliferation, were in town to talk Iran.

A similar line of very important visitors from Washington in five years time would probably produce PKK talk very similar to 2006, 2007 and 2011. Iran may be different. In 2016, the very important Americans may have to discuss in Ankara not Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but how to tackle its nuclear bombs.