Turkey keeps a cautious, neutral eye on Iran-Iraq war

The Turkish government is watching the fighting between neighboring Iran and Iraq and other developments along its southeastern borders with greater interest - and concern - for the future.

Turkey has taken a neutral stand on the Iran-Iraq war since the beginning, and has played an active but quiet role to try to stop the fighting. Ankara has cautiously avoided taking sides or showing sympathy for one of the neighboring rivals in the conflict.

Iran's recent formal assurances that it will refrain from any action in its current offensive against Iraq that could harm Turkey's interests appear to have stopped the Turks from intervening directly in the conflict earlier this month.

But despite these assurances, Turkey remains vigilant, and the possiblity of Turkish intervention - should the Iranian attacks threaten the nation's security and economic interests - still exists.

Turkey's neutral policy came under stress recently when Iranian troops opened a new front in northern Iraq. The Iranian advance and occupation of Haj Umran were coupled with two developments that provoked deep concern in Turkey. One was the threats made by the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, that the Iraqi oil pipeline that ends in Turkey could be bombed. The other was Tehran's active support of a Kurdish rebel group, led by Masoud Barzani, to fight against the Iraqis in exchange for recognition of their national rights.

Shortly after the Iranian offensive began, Turkey issued a strong warning to Tehran. Turkish Foreign Minister Ilter Turkmen said that ''neither side should take any action that would be contrary to Turkey's national interests'' and expressed the hope that Ankara's position would be well understood by Iran.

These statements were followed by a sudden visit to Ankara by Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz (with rumors that he was asking for active Turkish support in the war against Iran), a surprise trip by Foreign Minister Turkmen to the Turkish-Iraqi border area (qualified officially as a private tour), and the unexpected arrival in Ankara of a senior Iranian official bringing to Turkmen a message from his Iranian counterpart.

The contents of the message have not been disclosed, but according to informed sources, it contained a formal pledge that Iran will refrain from any action that might damage Turkey's interests.

In practical terms this would mean that Iran would abstain from bombing or destroying the Kirkuk-Iskenderun oil pipeline, and in fact would give up pushing its forces farther into the sensitive northern front.

So far this seems to have materialized. The Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Vellayati, has said that Turkey ''should not worry'' about the possibility of the pipeline's destruction.

The pipeline, of which 270 kilometers are in Iraq and 600 kilometers in Turkish territory, pumps 35 million tons of oil annually. It is Iraq's only outlet for its oil exports. Turkey buys 5 million tons of it - one-third of its imports - and receives $250 million in royalties.

Turkey has taken strict security measures to protect the pipeline inside its territory, but a task force could assume protection of the Iraqi part. If an intervention appeared imminent, the Iraqi goverment - lacking the capability to protect the pipeline itself - is prepared to seek support from Turkey.

But the Turks are equally concerned with the way the Iranians have been exploiting the Kurdish rebellion to the point of granting national rights to a group fighting against Iraq. This is a most delicate matter for Turkey, which has a large Kurdish population along those borders. Last May, Turkey launched a raid against Kurdish rebels inside Iraqi territory.

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