Turkey tries to play referee between neighboring Iran and Iraq

Escalation of the Iran-Iraq war has led Turkey to try a mediating role between its two eastern neighbors. But despite its willingness to help, there is little it can do to end the 31/ 2-year-old war.

''The only thing that we can do now is to advise restraint to the two warring countries,'' a senior Turkish official said. ''If we are requested to take an active mediation role, we shall not hesitate to do it. But so far there has not been such a request.''

Recent soundings indicate, officials privately say, that the Iraqis welcome such a mediation effort by Turkey, while the Iranians show little interest in it.

Turkish President Kenan Evren said during a visit to Saudi Arabia last month that he would be prepared to go to Iran if necessary.

Officials point out that although the Iranians have voiced satisfaction over Mr. Evren's goodwill, they have declined his offer.

Turkish Foreign Minister Vahit Halefoglu leaves today for Iran, and Prime Minister Turgut Ozal plans a trip in April. But such visits are focused on bilateral ties - Iran is now Turkey's chief foreign trade partner - and little is expected to come of any discussions on the war.

Turkey has succeeded in strengthening its ties with both Iran and Iraq, particularly since the war began. And it has managed to increase significantly its trade with both countries.

Turkey wants to preserve political stability on its southern and eastern borders. It fears any upset in the balance of power in this sensitive region. Officials privately say that if Iran should win the war and overthrow the Iraqi regime, the Shiite revolution would spread in the region, posing a threat to other Islamic countries.

If Iraq should topple the Iranian regime, the danger of a power vacuum in Tehran - which could be filled by the Iranian communists - would grow.

The political opposition here has been talking of ''American pressure'' to help Iraq. Some Turks are even questioning if Ankara should not intervene on the side of Iraq to preserve Turkey's security. Government officials say all this is gossip.

But Turkey's ''limited'' military operation inside Iraq last spring against Kurdish rebels did raise certain appetites in some Turkish circles.

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