Friday, January 14, 2011
The permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, or P5+1, group will meet with an Iran nuclear delegation next week in Istanbul and that rare window of opportunity might let us see what Iran plans to do going forward.
Over the week, I talked to more than half a dozen United States officials and Iran experts and read tens of commentaries about the expectations of the Istanbul talks next week. This week, varying views over the effectiveness of sanctions have been joined by confusing articles, such as that of Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American religious scholar who frequently writes on Iranian politics, in which he asked how much we know about Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and whether he might be the “hidden” but real reformist, based on U.S. diplomatic cables recently released by WikiLeaks.
U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary and spokesman Philip J. Crowley, also known as PJ, spent about 40 minutes with me this week to talk about current and future U.S.-Turkey relations.
I was certainly not expecting our interview to open any new chapters in relations, though neither was I expecting to hear any praise about Turkey’s diplomatic role in Iran’s nuclear program.
At least twice PJ “welcomed” Turkey’s new pro-active role in the region when I told him of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s remarks that the U.S. needs to adapt to changing Turkey. “Turkey is rightfully trying to put itself into a position from which it can strategically affect the events in the 21st century,” PJ said.
A retired colonel, like his wife, PJ talked about what he thinks about his job as going out to represent official U.S. foreign affairs policy to the world everyday. “I know that my words have meanings. When I speak about American policies I not only address the American people but also all other world governments. It is a global market and everybody has questions from different sides of the world,” he said. To stay on the top of what is going around the world PJ works from 5 a.m. till almost midnight and has found that his addiction to his Blackberry helps him keep up.
In the last several weeks there have been various estimates and reports published suggesting that Iran’s nuclear program has been severely hindered. For instance, Israel’s newly retired spy chief Meir Dagan reported that Iran would not be able to build a nuclear bomb before 2015 because its nuclear program had been delayed by unspecified “measures” deployed against it, according to Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot.
PJ, whether because of these serious and relieving estimations about when Iran could obtain nuclear capability, had a warmer attitude towards Turkey’s Iranian diplomacy and argued that Turkey’s diplomatic relations with Iran have played an important role in relaying the same message to Iran. “Work together with P5+1 and the IAEA. We may have differing views on how to reach this outcome but eventually there’s no difference between the U.S. and Turkey on what Iran should do,” PJ said.
While the U.S. and the West insist that sanctions are biting, from the beginning, Turkey said sanctions do not work in principle, and eventually opposed the U.N’s resolution 1921, a sanction package against Iran, when it came to the U.N. Security Council.
Reuel March Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute headed by some of the world’s leading conservative figures, also said that sanctions have been increasing pressure on Iran during a recent phone interview. Gerecht said the Obama administration does not currently have a military strike option on the table, and is instead rallying around the sanctions to hurt Iran’s nuclear industry and its economy.
Gerecht articulated that concerns about Iran’s influence over Iraq are exaggerated, and that he also doesn’t believe there is any more for Turkey to do besides accommodating the talks. On the contrary, Gerecht expects Iraq to produce considerably more oil in the coming years to compete with Iran and help stabilize the oil market.
Michael Adler, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who is currently writing a book on Iran’s nuclear diplomacy, also ruled out any kind of Turkish role for the P5+1 talks in Istanbul in during a recent conversation we had. “It was the Iranians who wanted the talks to be held in Istanbul, and Turkey was happy to do it. Other than hosting, Turkey is not part of the talks at all,” Adler said. “Turkey does not want to clash with the US administration again.” The final remark was an indirect reference to the Tehran Nuclear Reactor deal which left distaste in Washington, which Obama subsequently told Erdoğan about at a meeting in Canada.
While both experts give no chance to a military option anytime soon, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen avoided talking about Iran’s influence on Iraq when he was asked during a press conference. Even though I asked admiral, “how worried are you that Iran’s influence in Iraq” might be rising as U.S. troops are leaving there, he answered by saying, “I think you express a concern with respect to Iran’s influence in Iraq that is widely held in the region. In your country as well as other countries in the region. That said, I’ve been very pleased with the outcome of the standup of the new government. One of the things the United States said is that it had to be inclusive, and it is inclusive.”
While the highest U.S. military chief avoided talking about possible Iranian influence in Iraq, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to International Atomic Energy Agency, this week described the Istanbul talks the last chance “because by installing fuel rods produced by Iran in the core of the Tehran Research Reactor, probably parliament will not allow the government to negotiate or send its uranium outside the country and the Istanbul meeting might be the last chance for the West to return to talks."
When I relayed this message on to a senior U.S. State Department official on Wednesday morning, while clearly bothered by the tone of the message, the official stated: “I don’t know if it is the last chance, but we certainly expect Iranian officials are prepared to come to the table in a constructive fashion. Iran has to do more to answer our questions and cooperate with the IAEA fully. It is important to reiterate that it is Iran that continues to fail to meet its international obligations. This is not about the West, it is about Iran.”
The P5+1 meetings with Iran will be a significant event next week, following the fragile, thrilling political chess game going on in Lebanon. As it has been explained in detail by countless experts, the stakes in Lebanon are high and many state and non-state actors seem to have axes to grind and reasons to show off in this torn country.
I tried to decode Davutoğlu’s vision last week, in which I duly summarized what kind of diplomacy he has promised to the world. Ankara so far seems to be very active in the developing events in Lebanon and is surely aware that Lebanon could be a critical opportunity for Ankara to put its “wise” diplomatic skills to the test.