Hoping to build on its growing relations with Iran and its traditional alliance with the United States, Turkey recently offered its services as a mediator between the two countries. Analysts in Turkey say Ankara's offer, though sincere, may be a tough sell in both Washington and Tehran.
Washington and Tehran severed ties following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and these days the two states are at odds over Iran's nuclear program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. With President-elect Barack Obama on record as saying his incoming administration would consider engagement with Iran, Turkish leaders tried to give rapprochement prospects a boost.
"We are ready to be the mediator," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the New York Times in a November 9 interview. "I do believe we could be very useful."
"We watch the relations between Iran and United States with great concern," Erdogan added. "We expect such issues [as the nuclear matter] to be resolved at the table. Wars are never solutions in this age."
Observers were not surprised by Erdogan's offer. Ankara, for the last few years, has actively sought to establish itself as a kind of regional mediator and (soft) power broker, working to strengthen relations with neighbors that it has previously kept at an arm's length -- even bringing Israel and Syria together for a round of secret meetings in Istanbul.
"Erdogan likes this idea of playing the mediator, proving to the world that Turkey is important and a key player in this region and in a much better position that many countries in the world and the region. I think that Erdogan has a sense of mission that Turkey can help, since it has the trust of all the sides concerned," said Sami Kohen, a political analyst and columnist for the daily Milliyet newspaper.
"No country in the area, perhaps no country in the world, has Turkey's geopolitical advantage. There are advantages to being in between east and west," he continued. "Since the United States hasn't been able to talk directly to Iran, somebody else has to do that, and from the Turkish perspective, who is better to do that than them? Who else has the trust of the Iranians?"
Relations between sometime regional rivals Turkey and Iran have certainly taken off since Erdogan's liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into power in 2002. The last few years have seen bilateral trade between Turkey and Iran grow dramatically, shooting up to more than $8 billion last year, compared to $1 billion in 2000. The two countries are also cooperating in the energy field, with Ankara recently signing a preliminary agreement with Tehran that would allow it to develop natural gas fields in Iran.
"Iranian-Turkish relations have almost reached their peak since 2003. Although some problems persist, in these last five years, comparatively speaking, Turkish-Iranian relations have been much better than previous periods. I don't think there's a problem of mistrust," said Mustafa Kibaroglu, an expert on Turkish-Iranian relations at Bilkent University in Ankara.
He added: "I don't think Turkey would like to see a nuclear weapons-capable Iran next door. But it doesn't want to see a confrontation in the region over the issue."
Erdogan apparently went public with the mediation offer without sounding out Washington. But given Obama's rhetoric during the campaign, there was a reasonable expectation in Ankara that the initiative would gain due consideration after the new administration takes over in Washington.
But even if the Obama administration does try to engage Iran, some experts believe that US officials would not be inclined to do so via a third-party. "Opening a dialogue is something the United States is going to do itself. It's not going to look for an interlocutor, no matter how closely allied. This is a different beast. This isn't Israel and Syria," said Ian Lesser, a Washington-based Turkey expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "I don't think an Obama administration will be looking to Turkey as a vehicle for this."
Meanwhile, the signals coming out of Tehran -- about both the question of talking to the United States and Turkey's role as a mediator -- have been mixed.
"People who put on a mask of friendship, but with the objective of betrayal, and who enter from the angle of negotiations without preconditions, are more dangerous," Hossein Taeb, deputy commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, recently said, according to the country's semiofficial Mehr News Agency.
"The power holders in the new American government are trying to regain their lost influence with a tactical change in their foreign diplomacy. They are shifting from a hard conflict to a soft attack," Taeb said.
Commenting recently about Erdogan's mediation offer, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi didn't exactly give the Turks an unqualified green light to go ahead. "We will certainly not raise any obstacles," the spokesman said during a news conference. "But the reality is that the issues and problems between Iran and the United states go beyond the usual political problems between two countries."
Bilkent's Kibaroglu believes the Qashqavi's words indicate an Iranian belief that Turkey might not be the one to bring the United States to the table. "Emphasizing that there are deeper problems in a sense implies that Turkey is not qualified to be a mediator," he says. "In diplomatic terms, it wasn't very diplomatic. I think Erdogan's initiative deserved more appreciation."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.