The outcome is what matters in the Iran talks

The outcome is what matters in the Iran talks

Turkish-Iranian relations are on a different level to what they were during the heady days of May 2010, when Ankara, together with Brazil, clinched what appeared to be a successful fuel swap deal with Tehran that was supposed to mark a major breakthrough on the Iranian nuclear issue.

It remains an open question whether Turkey and Brazil were led into a dead end in this endeavor by Washington, which appeared to support their efforts but rejected the outcome. Since then, Turkey has more or less been marginalized in the Iran nuclear talks. 

If it were not for the fact that Istanbul hosted the talks between the P5+1 (the permanent Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran in January 2011, Turkey would be out of the picture altogether. Perhaps it is because of this that the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government has been pushing to host the latest round of talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Istanbul again. 

But as we suggested at the beginning, the environment has changed radically between Ankara and Tehran in the intervening period because of the diametrically opposed positions of the two countries on Syria. Adding to the tension was Ankara’s decision to host the radar systems of NATO’s missile defense shield, which is clearly against Iran, even if Turkey denies this vehemently.

Tensions surfaced last week when senior Iranian politicians maintained that Ankara had lost its impartiality, not only because of the Syria issue, but also because of the missile defense issue. The statements of Iranian politicians forced Prime Minister Erdoğan in turn into issuing uncharacteristically harsh words against Iran.

Erdoğan effectively accused Tehran of driving the issue uphill, adding that this is why Tehran had a credibility problem with the international community. What made Erdogan’s remarks even more remarkable was that he said this just days after his high-level talks in Iran, where he was on an official visit that both sides declared “highly successful.” 

Whether it was Erdogan’s angry remarks, or the realization in Tehran that there is little to gain from alienating Ankara, it appears that Turkey will host the talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Istanbul this weekend after all. This will of course provides a certain amount of face-saving for the Erdoğan government in terms of domestic public opinion.

The point, however, is that it is not the venue of the talks that is ultimately important. Rather, it is what will be talked about, and the possible outcome that matters, whether these talks are held in Turkey or elsewhere. 

There is also the fact that Turkey will have very little input in the actual proceedings even if the talks are held in Istanbul, since it is not a party to the negotiations. The government may try to present the image that it is somehow at the core of these talks and that this is why these are being held in Istanbul, but that is only for domestic political consumption. 

As for the talks in Istanbul this time, the indicators are not positive, with Tehran clinging on to its right to do everything it is currently doing in the nuclear area and showing few signs that it is prepared to become more transparent on this issue. And the P5+1 doesn’t appear prepared to compromise either. 

Of course a positive outcome would be welcomed by Ankara at a time when the Middle East is already in sufficient turmoil. Turkey is watching increasing Israeli bellicosity on this score with great consternation. Prime Minister Erdoğan, like many intelligent Western politicians and analysts, also believes that an Israeli strike against Iran would spell disaster for the area, and clearly would have dire consequences for Turkey, too.

These then are the real issues that should be occupying Turkish minds, and not the venue of the talks with Iran. In real terms it matters little from Ankara’s perspective where these talks are held, as long as a positive outcome is reached.