Rouhani is in Ankara with delicate timing

Rouhani is in Ankara with delicate timing

As Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani starts his two-day official visit to Ankara today hosted by President Abdullah Gül of Turkey, high rank delegations from the U.S. and Iran will meet in Geneva for two days of nuclear talks in the first direct diplomatic contact since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

So far, the talks have been carried out through the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on behalf of the U.N. Security Council Permanent Members: the U.S., Russia, China, U.K., France, plus Germany (P5+1), but with no official American participation in delegations. The outcome, which seemed unthinkable a year ago, was possible when Rouhani, after defeating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the August 2013 elections, responded positively to U.S. President Barack Obama’s extended hand.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will accompany Rouhani in his first visit to Turkey since he assumed office, but he will be in continuous contact with his deputy Abbas Araqchi in Geneva to feed the president for talks. Araqchi will be meeting there with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Helga Schmid, Ashton’s deputy.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu, on the other hand, will not be in Ankara during Rouhani’s visit. Being the counterpart of both Burns and Araqchi, he will start his weeklong contacts in the U.S. and be reporting to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in Ankara about his work there, an interesting diplomatic traffic.

The agenda of the talks in Geneva is likely to cover both Iran’s capability to meet the July 20 deadline for the first phase of the talks and whether it is possible to ease sanctions over Iran, which are damaging its economy based on oil exports.

The talks in Ankara will touch that issue as well, since Turkey has been heavily involved in the Iran nuclear traffic. In 2010, an initiative by Turkey and Brazil failed at the last minute due to a vote from the U.N. Turkey’s nuclear sherpa during that effort, Hakan Fidan is now Turkey’s Intelligence Agency (MİT) chief. And Davutoğlu has hosted a number of contacts between P5+1 and Iran in Turkey.

But now it is rather a matter of direct contact between Washington D.C. and Tehran, with E.U. as facilitator and Turkey and Iran always have other things to talk about in between.

Besides President Gül, whose seven-year term will end in August, Rouhani and team will have extensive talks with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and his ministers.

Besides efforts to increase the oil-based trade, there are serious political issues to talk about: the situations in Syria and Iraq are likely to top them.

Turkey and Iran are on different camps in Syria. Rouhani backs the Bashar al-Assad regime, as his predecessors did. Turkey has stepped up efforts with western intelligence agencies against both al-Assad and al-Qaeda in Syria. In Iraq, on the other hand, the two are on the same page in certain areas; both Ankara and Tehran want Iraq to stay as one and see the partition of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as an independent entity against their national interests, at a time when the Turkish government is pursuing a political solution to its Kurdish problem through talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It is interesting to observe that the PKK, which has ups and downs with Tehran, too has stepped up its military activity on the eve of Rouhani’s visit, with a perspective to have a bargaining position with PM Erdoğan for the presidential elections in August.

Another delicate issue with Iran concerns major corruption probes both in Iran and Turkey, which might be interlinked. Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-origin businessman who used to be involved in the oil-for-gold trade with Iran, has been a subject of the Dec. 17, 2013 probe with claims to have bribed a number of Turkish ministers and officials to facilitate his business. There are reports that Zarrab, who has been released from prison, is now linked with Babak Zanjani, a billionaire businessman accused of being in corrupt relations with former Iranian government officials. Zanjani is in jail in Iran now, but it is not clear whether this issue will come up in the official talks in Ankara.