ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Turkey on Thursday reflects a desire by the NATO member to remain on good terms with an unpredictable neighbor and secure future energy needs.
President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan have come under criticism at home and abroad for inviting Ahmadinejad, a visit that marks a diplomatic coup for the firebrand leader who has been shunned by European countries.
Ankara has said his visit was necessary given the standoff between Iran and the West over Tehran’s disputed nuclear enrichment program, and offered to help resolve the dispute.
But analysts said the trip was more about ensuring centuries-old ties during a period of global tensions.
“Although Turkey doesn’t like the present regime it has always tried to keep Iranians both at bay and collaborate with them. It is an extremely delicate balancing act and it will continue to be so,” said Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University.
“The visit is all about controlled risks and the most important aspect is a gas deal with Iran, not the nuclear program because Turkey has little influence on that,” he said.
Turkey and Iran share a border dating to a 1639 peace treaty.
Ahmadinejad has been courting Turkey in the past few years as the United States has stepped up efforts to isolate Iran for failing to halt its disputed nuclear enrichment program. Washington sees the president’s visit as undermining such moves. Israel, another ally of Turkey, has also criticized the visit.
Gul and Erdogan — both founders of the Islamist-rooted ruling AK Party — have pushed to boost Turkey’s position in the Middle East region, building greater ties with neighboring countries than previous governments.
Though Iran and Turkey are close geographically, historically and culturally, they have remained distant in policy and direction since the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Turkey, which is seeking European Union membership, is also concerned at the repercussions were the United States or Israel to strike the Islamic Republic.
“Ankara definitely does not sympathize with the ‘theodemocracy’ (theocracy-partial democracy) of Iran. ... But not having a hostile attitude against Iran is important for Turkey’s domestic stability as well as its energy needs,” said Sahin Alpay, a columnist for conservative daily Zaman.
Turkey is entirely dependent on energy imports to quench its increasing thirst for oil and gas as its industry expands. Iran is currently its second biggest supplier of gas after Russia.
Bilateral trade reached $5 billion in the first half of 2008 and Turkey has pledged to invest $3.5 billion in Iranian gas production. Ankara and Tehran signed a memorandum of understanding but are yet to sign a comprehensive agreement to invest in Iran’s South Pars gas field project.
Part of that deal agreement may be signed on Thursday.
Turkey is also a major transit route for goods between the European Union and Iran.
Turkey, an officially secular but predominantly Sunni Muslim country, has long been wary over Shi’ite Tehran’s effort to export its style of Islamic Republic, its meddling in the region and its true intentions regarding its nuclear program.
Iran has on the other hand resented Turkey’s Western orientation and reluctance to back Tehran against U.S. and EU pressure, now in the form of economic sanctions.
News reports that Ahmadinejad did not wish to visit the tomb of Turkey’s revered founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Ankara have caused a stir. Protocol requires foreign leaders to visit the mausoleum and Turkish media said Gul had subsequently moved the trip to Istanbul to avoid a potential embarrassing moment.
While tensions have simmered from time to time each country clearly recognizes they have mutual interests.
Tehran’s help in tackling Kurdish separatists based in northern Iraq has also boosted bilateral ties with Turkey, to the dismay of Washington, which until recently offered little help in moving against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) bases.
“Will the visit really help Turkey? I doubt it. It’s more beneficial for Ahmadinejad. He’ll get another 15 minutes in the spotlight when he unleashes his trademark attacks against Israel and the United States,” said a senior EU diplomat.
Editing by Mary Gabriel