All systems are go for large-scale rise in Turkish-Iranian trade
Istanbul — Some call it ''Operation Iran.'' Others describe it as ''Turkey's economic landing in Iran.'' Whatever you call it, all systems are go for a large-scale increase in trade between the two countries.
Turgut Ozal's arrival in Iran last weekend, his first trip abroad as Turkey's prime minister, has generated high expectations among Turkish citizens. Mr. Ozal and Iranian leaders will mainly discuss matters of economic cooperation - from joint ventures to increased trade, from a project to build an oil pipeline to development of transport and communications.
Negotiations for increased trade have already been started by Turkish Minister of State Ismail Ozdaglar, who traveled to Tehran last week. Turkish businessmen who accompanied him immediately established contacts in the Iranian market.
In Iran, Mr. Ozdaglar told reporters he hopes Turkey can increase its exports to Iran this year to $2 billion. He offered Iran Turkey's help in carrying out several projects that could not be completed because of the Iran-Iraq war. Iranian authorities are also reportedly enthusiastic about Turkey's interest, calling Turkey a friendly ''Islamic state.''
Turkish analysts say Turkey's plan stems not from support of Ayatollah Khomeini's ''Islamic revolution,'' nor from Islamic solidarity, nor from a preference for Iran in its war with Iraq. Turkey, in fact, has also been strengthening its ties to Iraq.
Turkey's growing interest in Iran comes from Iran's desire to establish a close working relationship with Turkey. The Shah, Turks complained, lacked such a desire, despite the two countries' association in regional military and economic pacts. Trade, which under the Shah was insignificant at $12 million, rose considerably when Khomeini came to power in February 1979 and has risen even more since the Gulf war began in September 1980. Turkey, no doubt, also hopes to bolster its own ailing economy.
Last year Turkey's exports to Iran reached $1 billion. This rise enables Turkey to increase its oil imports from Iran, which now amount to $1.2 billion. For the first time, West Germany, traditionally Turkey's No. 1 trading partner, is in second place on Turkey's export lists.
The Turks say that Iran, isolated economically as much as politically, needs Turkey to supply basic commodities, such as agricultural products and consumer goods. Turkish businessmen have begun to commute between Istanbul and Tehran in search of market opportunities. Turkish companies have set up offices in Iran.
Ozal's is scheduled to travel to Libya next month. Some high-level Western observers are concerned that he is giving priority to Turkey's relations with two Islamic countries that are hostile to the West.
Senior Turkish officials say there is no hidden intention in these two visits. Turkey's interests are mainly economic, they say. But one cannot ignore the political aspect of these trips at a time when Turkish ties to the West are strained. The United States Congress wants to cut aid to Turkey. European parliaments are critical of Turkey's regime. West Germany is threatening to send home Turkish workers it can no longer employ.
Turkish analysts are the first to recognize the political pitfalls of Ozal's travels.
''We may consider Khomeini's Islamic revolution contradictory to our secular system and we may disapprove what goes on in Tehran,'' writes political scientist Prof. Mumtaz Soysal. ''But we must not forget that the present regime has shown an interest in Turkey that we never saw during the Shah's rule.''
Turkish officials say Turkey's drive to develop ties with Iran, Libya, and other Middle Eastern countries should be favorably regarded in the West. Mr. Ozal advocates playing the role of ''bridge'' between the West and the Islamic world.
''Turkey can act as a channel of communications between these two worlds,'' said an editorial in the newspaper Cumhuriyet. ''This will undoubtedly increase our room for maneuvering in our external relations.''