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Viewing cable 09ISTANBUL440, TURKEY-IRAN RELATIONS: MOTIVATIONS, LIMITATIONS,

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09ISTANBUL440 2009-12-04 12:12 2010-11-28 18:06 CONFIDENTIAL Consulate Istanbul
VZCZCXRO7673
PP RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHDIR RUEHKUK RUEHTRO
DE RUEHIT #0440/01 3381236
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 041236Z DEC 09
FM AMCONSUL ISTANBUL
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9361
INFO RUCNIRA/IRAN COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 ISTANBUL 000440 
 
SIPDIS 
 
LONDON FOR MURRAY; BERLIN FOR ROSENSTOCK-STILLER; BAGHDAD 
FOR POPAL AND HUBAH; BAKU FOR MCCRENSKY; ASHGABAT FOR 
TANGBORN; DUBAI FOR IRPO 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/02/2024 
TAGS: PREL PGOV PINS ECON ETRD KNNP TU IR
SUBJECT: TURKEY-IRAN RELATIONS: MOTIVATIONS, LIMITATIONS, 
AND IMPLICATIONS 
 
REF: (A) ANKARA 1516 (EXDIS) (B) ISTANBUL 421 (C) 
     ISTANBUL 290 (D) 2008 ISTANBUL 85 (E) 2008 
     ISTANBUL 146 (F) ISTANBUL 425 (G) ANKARA 1704 
 
Classified By: ConGen Istanbul Deputy Principal Officer Win Dayton; Rea 
son 1.5 (d). 
 
1.  (C) Recent discussions with Turkish and Iranian 
think-tank, business, and political activist contacts on the 
issue of Turkey-Iran relations reveal a broad consensus that: 
(1) Turkey pursues closer relations with Iran out of desires 
for regional stability and conflict avoidance, recognition of 
Turkey as an indispensable East-West bridge; strengthening a 
long-term energy and commercial relationship; and hope that 
Turkey's approach will moderate Iranian regime behavior.  (2) 
Iran reciprocates because it sees Turkey as a hedge against 
its diplomatic isolation, a buffer against sanctions, and a 
safety valve for its population.  However, (3) Turkey's 
influence over Iranian decision-making it limited; Turkey has 
never persuaded Iran to change course on an issue of 
strategic concern to the regime.  To quote one contact: 
"Iran knows Turkey is not going to walk away."  On the other 
hand, our contacts also concluded that Iranian 
decision-making responds at least tactically to multilateral 
pressure, which argues that Turkey can and should play a key 
role to play in supporting tougher approaches on Iran at the 
UNSC and IAEA.  End Summary. 
 
Views from Contacts on Turkey-Iran Relations 
--------------------------------------------- 
2.  (C) Over the past several weeks, in conversations before 
and after President Ahmadinejad's November 8-9 visit to 
Istanbul (ref B), ConGen Istanbul's NEA Iran Watcher has 
solicited views from a wide range of Turkish and Iranian 
contacts on the issue of warming Turkey-Iran relations, what 
motivates each side, and whether Turkey's approach has led to 
a moderation of Iranian regime behavior.  Contacts with whom 
we spoke included Turkish academic experts, Turkish 
businessmen who deal with Iran, Istanbul-based journalists 
who cover Iran, several Iranian political activists now 
seeking refugee status in Turkey for fear of persecution in 
Iran, and several Tehran-based Iranian contacts who follow 
Iran's foreign policy.  Our conversations revealed an unusual 
confluence of views. 
 
Turkey's Motivations 
-------------------- 
3.  (C) According to a number of Turkish academic and 
think-tank contacts, Turkey is pursuing closer relations with 
Iran for several mutually-reinforcing reasons.  First, the 
underlying principle:  According to a Turkish university 
professor who informally advises FM Davutoglu on Middle East 
issues (ref C), Turkey's pursuit of close relations with Iran 
is a direct reflection of Davutoglu's academic philosophy and 
influential 2000 book, "Strategic Depth," in which he first 
articulated a policy of "zero problems" with Turkey's 
neighbors.  Another Istanbul-based professor told us that 
Turkey's Iran policy represents "a triumph of real-politik," 
with Turkey's national and regional interests trumping any 
discomfort that Turkey, as a multi-ethnic, pluralistic 
democracy, might feel about the Iranian regime's harsh 
domestic authoritarianism.  This contact described Davutoglu 
as "Turkey's Kissinger." 
 
4.  (C) Regional Stability and Conflict Avoidance:  Turkish 
contacts, and indeed even MFA interlocutors, have 
acknowledged in the recent past that Turkey sees a military 
attack against Iran's nuclear facilities as the worst 
possible outcome on the Iran issue.  Iran's acquisition of a 
nuclear weapons capability would only be the second worst 
outcome.  This hints at the depth of Turkey's anxiety about 
the dangers to regional stability, including Turkey's, of the 
unintended consequences of any further military action in the 
region, and explains Turkey's commitment at almost any cost 
to continued western diplomatic engagement with Iran.  As one 
contact explained, "After the traumatic violence in Iraq, and 
fearful that some countries still think military action is an 
option with Iran, Turkey will do anything to prevent armed 
conflict."  The GoT's approach on this score enjoys some 
public support:  Turkish public opinion also considers an 
attack against Iran as more dangerous to Turkey than Iran 
acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.  Indeed, almost a 
third of Turks polled do not consider a nuclear-armed Iran to 
be a threat, believing that Iran would never attack a fellow 
Muslim country. 
 
5.  (C) Recognition of Turkey as Moderate Regional Leader and 
Indispensable East-West Bridge:  According to an Ankara-based 
 
ISTANBUL 00000440  002 OF 004 
 
 
international relations professor with ties to PM Erdogan's 
office, Turkey is also deepening ties to Iran because the 
region otherwise faces a "power vacuum."  No other regional 
state (e.g. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq) has the military and 
economic power to serve as an effective counterweight to 
Iran.  Turkey fills this role with the support of regional 
states who otherwise fear a dominant Iran, including the Gulf 
States and to some degree Iran's own client, Syria. 
Moreover, he described Turkey's engagement with Iran as part 
of a wider effort to stake out a regional leadership position 
that puts Turkey "at the fulcrum" and makes it an 
indispensable partner for the west -- whether or not Turkey 
eventually joins the EU -- in dealing with the Middle East 
and Central Asia.  This contact acknowledged that this 
sometimes requires Turkey to tactically distance itself from 
the USG on several key issues, including Iran's "right" to 
enrichment and the regime's dismal human rights record.  But 
our contact underscored that "this is classic triangulation." 
 Turkey's intention, he claims, is not a strategic distancing 
from the US. 
6.  (C) Strengthening a long-term energy and commercial 
relationship:  Turkey does not hide the fact that its own 
growing energy security needs compel it to look to all 
available sources, including Iran, for energy.  In response, 
we have underscored that the USG supports the diversification 
of Turkish gas supplies, while cautioning that Iran has 
proven to be an unreliable partner in the past and 
reaffirming USG concern over new energy deals with Iran. 
Turkey is also actively seeking to expand trade ties with 
Iran:  Both Turkish and Iranian officials have publicly 
called for bilateral trade volume, which was $10 billion in 
2008, to reach $20 billion by 2012 -- a goal most trade 
experts say is wildly unrealistic.  Furthermore, Turkey is 
taking steps to protect and expand financial ties with Iran, 
for example by continuing to allow Iran's Bank Mellat 
(sanctioned by the USG under E.O. 13382) to operate branches 
in Istanbul and Ankara, and agreeing to conduct bilateral 
trade in Turkish Lira or Iranian Rials rather than dollars 
and Euros to avoid having to clear the payments through US or 
European banks. 
7.  (C) Tying Iran into regional organizations:  As long as 
Davutoglu controls Turkish foreign policy, our Turkish 
contacts predict that Ankara will seek multiple avenues for 
bilateral and multilateral engagement with Iran, deepening 
bilateral cultural and economic ties, and working with 
regional organizations like the D-8 (ref D), the Economic 
Cooperation Organization (ref E) and the OIC to maximize 
engagement.  Indeed, Davutoglu's MFA sees regional IOs like 
these as much more useful tools for engaging Iran, and thus 
committing Iran incrementally to pursue regionally 
cooperative policies, than previous FMs did, according to 
contacts. 
 
Iran's Motivations 
------------------ 
8.   (C) According to our Turkish and Iranian contacts, Iran 
is happy to reciprocate Turkey's interest in closer ties 
because it sees Turkey as a hedge against its diplomatic 
isolation, a buffer against sanctions, and a safety valve for 
its population.  Turkey's value to Iran is felt most strongly 
in these six areas: 
--Economic:  Iran recognizes Turkey's emergence as a regional 
economic powerhouse, wants to deepen Turkey's dependence on 
its natural gas, and sees Turkish markets and bilateral 
commerce as a hedge against isolation and sanctions; 
-- Diplomatic:  Iran knows that Turkey's seats on the UNSC 
and IAEA Board give it outsized influence, and Iran benefits 
from the occasional inclination of Turkish leaders to give 
Iran's nuclear intentions, at least in public, the benefit of 
the doubt; 
-- Political:  Turkey's refusal to publicly criticize the 
regime over the conduct of June elections or its crackdown on 
peaceful protesters, as well as PM Edogan's quick recognition 
of Ahmadinejad's contested election victory, helped bolster 
Iranian regime legitimacy at a critical period when the 
regime needed it most; 
--  Cultural:  A quarter of Iran's population is ethnically 
Azeri and Turkish-speaking; Turkish TV programs and are among 
the most popular in Iran; and one million Iranians flock 
annually visa-free to Turkey as a touristic "safety valve"; 
-- Turkey's strategic importance to the U.S: Iran closely 
watched the spring 2009 visits to Turkey by Secretary Clinton 
and then President Obama.  One direct result of those visits, 
according to an Iranian journalist based in Istanbul, was a 
decision by the regime to try to use Turkey's enhanced 
influence with the USG to "soften" Washington's approach to 
Iran. 
 
 
ISTANBUL 00000440  003 OF 004 
 
 
The Limits of Turkish Influence On Iran 
--------------------------- 
9.  (C) Turkey's influence with Iran runs broadly, but does 
not appear to run deep.  None of our contacts had seen 
concrete evidence that Turkey has swayed Iranian leaders to 
change course on any issue of strategic interest to the 
regime where Iran had not already calculated it was in its 
interests to do so. 
 
10. (C) An Istanbul-based professor who informally advises 
Davutoglu, and joined him in his September and October bilats 
(in Tehran and Kuala Lumpur) with Iranian FM Mottaki, claimed 
that Davutoglu's interventions helped persuade the regime to 
agree to participate in the October 1 Geneva meeting with the 
P5 1.  However, all other contacts dismissed that claim, 
noting that Iranian regime statements and press reports prior 
to Davutoglu's bilats already indicated that Iran would go to 
Geneva. 
 
11. (C) Several weeks of intense, personal diplomacy by FM 
Davutoglu, supported by interventions form President Gul and 
PM Erdogan, have been unable to persuade Iranian 
decision-makers  to agree to a compromise deal with Turkey 
that would keep alive the IAEA's Tehran Research Reactor 
(TRR) fuel swap proposal, a key test of the P5 1's efforts to 
engage Iran. 
 
12.  (C) Our contact who advises Davutoglu also asserted that 
Turkey played a key role in persuading Iran to release 
several detainees including Greek-British journalist Iason 
Athanasiadis (jailed in Iran on June 17 and released on July 
6).  But Athanasiadis (please protect) told us that while 
Turkey offered to intervene with Iran on his case, to his 
knowledge it never did, and indeed Athanasiadis told us he 
believed it was the Ecumenical Patriarch's personal request 
to Khamenei (via letter) that probably convinced Iran to 
release him. 
 
13.  (C) Even on issues of lesser strategic importance to 
Iran, high-level Turkish intervention does not reveal a 
record of successfully moderating Iranian policies. 
According to a Turkish businessman who deals with Iran (Ref 
F), several interventions from Turkey's Trade and Foreign 
Ministers, and even a plea from PM Erdogan in Tehran on 
October 27, have been unable to persuade Iran to lower its 
customs duties on Turkish imports, currently 45% for finished 
products. As our business contact explained, even though Iran 
depends on Turkish diplomatic support and benefits from 
Turkish gas purchases and other trade, Iran realizes it does 
not have to sacrifice any critical policy priorities in 
return, including its customs income, because "Iran knows 
Turkey is not going to walk away." 
 
Does Turkey Really Understand Iran Better? 
--------------------------------------- 
14.  (C) Underlying Turkey's pursuit of warmer relations with 
Iran is an assumption on the part of Turkish decision-makers 
and diplomats that Turkey has correctly judged that the 
current Iranian regime will be its long-term interlocutor. 
But Turkey's belief that it understands Iranian political 
developments better than most western countries is an 
assumption strongly challenged by our Iranian contacts. 
These contacts suggest that Turkey draws its assessment of 
Iran's internal dynamics through a subjective filter, which 
values regime stability foremost, and thus Turkey's 
assessments artificially inflate evidence suggestive of 
regime stability. 
 
15.  (C) According to two separate "Green Movement" activists 
now seeking refugee status in Turkey -- one a Mousavi 
campaign official, one the communications director of a 
reformist party that supported Mousavi -- Turkey missed an 
historic opportunity by quickly recognizing Ahmadinejad's 
victory and dismissing the Green Movement's political 
significance, either as a meaningful opposition movement or 
as the possible vanguard of a more democratic Iranian 
government.  Most Green Movement activists now see Turkey as 
fully committed to the Iranian regime's survival in the name 
of regional stability, and predict that Turkey will be "on 
the wrong side of history" if and when Iran's fractured 
regime faces systemic change at the hands of Iran's 
population.  "When the system falls and a more democratic, 
moderate, outward-looking government comes to power, we will 
all remember where Turkey stood on 22 Khordad (June 12) and 
after." 
16.  (C) Turkey, like the USG, almost certainly recognizes 
that within the Iranian regime there are at least several 
factions and key players jockeying intensely for influence. 
 
ISTANBUL 00000440  004 OF 004 
 
 
The fact that Turkish President Gul agreed to meet former 
Iranian presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai, a Rafsanjani 
ally, in Ankara in October (despite the INTERPOL Red Notice 
issued against Rezai), and the relative frequency with which 
Turkish officials including PM Erdogan have met influential 
Majles speaker Larijani, an Ahmadinejad rival, in the past 
six months, suggest that Turkey -- like others in the west -- 
wants to hedge its bets on who will emerge as the strongest 
of Iran's decision-makers, especially if Supreme Leader 
Khamenei faces future leadership challenges.  (In a telling 
anecdote related to us indirectly, when Erdogan met Khamenei 
in Tehran on October 28, Khamenei seemed to be "in a time 
capsule", asking uninformed or unrealistic questions about 
Turkish foreign policy, and passively uninterested in 
discussing the nuclear issue.)  Despite its belief that it 
knows its neighbor Iran better than most other countries do, 
according to our contacts, Turkey is just as uncertain as the 
USG and other western countries as to what exactly is 
happening behind the regime's closed doors. 
 
Implications 
---------- 
17.  (C) If the consensus views of our contacts are accurate, 
it suggests our efforts to persuade PM Erdogan to adopt a 
tougher public stance against Iran will be a tough sell. 
Even if Erdogan were to hew closer to P5-plus-one criticism 
of Iran, Tehran would likely pay him little heed.  On the 
other hand, our contacts point out that Iran's regime has a 
clear recent history of making tactical concessions in the 
face of concerted international pressure, especially pressure 
from the UNSC and IAEA.  If this holds true, we can and 
should encourage Turkey to play a supportive role at the UNSC 
and IAEA as the USG and partners consider raising pressure on 
Iran in those fora.  As noted Ref G, however, any USG effort 
to try press Turkey to sign up to tougher international 
measures on Iran, especially on issues that might impact the 
Turkish economy, will have  costly domestic political 
consequences for the GoT.  The key to securing Turkish 
acquiescence at the UNSC and IAEA, a Turkish professor 
explained, is to keep the engagement track on the table and 
even further sweetened (especially with trade incentives from 
which Turkey might also benefit), even as tougher measures 
are being pursued. 
WIENER