Turkey Ties Trade Knot With Iran, Sparks Alarm

Concern in the US, at NATO, and among oil-rich Gulf states, is rising over Islamist Iran's ties to Islamic-led Turkey

Turkey's blossoming ties with Iran are raising eyebrows across the Mideast, as well as suspicion in Washington that a crucial NATO ally is straying from the pro-West path.

Despite vocal opposition from the United States - which has increasingly sought to isolate Tehran for its alleged sponsorship of terrorism - Turkey and Iran vowed Dec. 21 to double bilateral trade next year to $2 billion and signed several trade agreements in Ankara, Turkey's capital.

The deal comes amid reports from Washington that the US is considering military strikes against Iran if presented with conclusive evidence that it was involved in the June 25 Al-Khobar blast that killed 19 American servicemen in Saudi Arabia.

The accords, however, also come just two weeks after Turkey's first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, bowed to his staunchly pro-West armed forces and signed a $600-million deal with Israel to modernize Turkish F-4 fighter-bombers.

Mr. Erbakan reportedly hinted he wanted to sign a defense cooperation deal with Iran, but the Army nixed the idea because of Iran's purported support for anti-Turkey Kurdish rebels.

Taken in the context of current Mideast strategic alliances, Turkey's embrace of Iran and ties to Israel are mutually exclusive ventures. Except for angering the US and other NATO allies, though, they fit Turkey's long-held status as a bridge between East and West.

Referring to US complaints, Iran's President Hashemi Rafsanjani said in Turkey: "We will not allow any other country to direct our politics .... Of course our relations will disturb certain circles, but these are childish things."

After he assumed power in June, Mr. Erbakan's first trip abroad confirmed that policy. Just days after President Clinton signed a law in August imposing sanctions against firms investing more than $40 million in the energy sectors of Iran or Libya, Erbakan visited Tehran and signed a 23-year natural-gas deal worth $23 billion.

The improvement in ties is a boon to Iran's mullah leaders who have been largely isolated from the Western world since their Islamic Revolution of 1979 and can point to few economic achievements. Instead, there have been charges of using terrorism to fulfill their stated policy of "exporting" the revolution, and of killing their exiled opponents abroad.

The Turkey-Iran friendship comes as countries in the oil-slathered Persian Gulf are reexamining the threat from regional powers such as Iran and Iraq.

To protect the vast oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and the pro-West Gulf sheikhdoms, the US has deployed significant military strength in the region since the 1991 Gulf war, which drove Iraq out of Kuwait.

The continuing US role - which looks more permanent as Gulf states bicker over joint defenses - has brought criticism from Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov during a current visit to Tehran.

"It is in the interest of Iran and Russia not to have more foreign military presence in the Persian Gulf," he said. Russia is helping Iran to complete a civilian nuclear-power plant, which Washington warns could serve as a springboard for nuclear-weapons development.

The United Arab Emirates, which stares at Iran across the Persian Gulf, reiterated its anxiety last week and accused Iran of deploying missiles on disputed islands.

German papers have reported that Iran is also developing missiles based on Chinese and North Korean technology that would have a range of 3,500 miles and could hit European targets. Apocryphal or not, such reports have hardened the will of US policymakers to stifle Iran. Still, the front is far from united.

Lebanon, for instance, receives US military aid, but its defense minister has said if Israel doesn't withdraw from southern Lebanon, he wouldn't rule out a pact with Iran. Tehran already provides cash, hardware, and training to the Hizbullah militia that battles Israel and its proxies in southern Lebanon.

As the Lebanon case shows, Turkey's ties to Iran, Israel, and the US keep it precariously engaged on both sides of the Middle East divide.

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