Cablegate: Turkey-Iran Relations: Motivations, Limitations,

DE RUEHIT #0440/01 3381236
P 041236Z DEC 09




E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/02/2024

ISTANBUL 290 (D) 2008 ISTANBUL 85 (E) 2008

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

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

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

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
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.

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.

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