Could talks over Iran nuclear crisis work? Turkish diplomat offers hints.

Turkey's foreign minister, in the US to discuss Syria and the Iran nuclear program, insists that the time for negotiations with Iran is not passed – and says Iran is willing to talk.  

Burhan Ozbilici/AP/File
Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi (l.) and his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu shake hands after a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, last month.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was recently in Tehran, says Iran is ready to return to negotiations on its nuclear program – but he offers no assurances that Iran is prepared to meet the West’s demand that Iran verifiably suspend its uranium enrichment activities to secure a restart of talks.

The top Turkish diplomat says “the mutual lack of trust” between the two sides is the fundamental roadblock holding up the resumption of negotiations. Western powers believe Iran “simply wants to buy time” for its nuclear activities with endless talks, while Iran is convinced the West seeks to deny its right to nuclear development, he says.

Still, he said he is “more optimistic” about talks eventually taking place. “I think this time, Iran has seen that there is a need for negotiation,” he said.

Mr. Davutoglu is in Washington to meet with administrative officials and Congressional leaders on two pressing issues – Iran and Syria. Turkey’s remarkable rise as a regional leader over the year of the Arab Spring will color discussions as the foreign minister meets Monday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, White House national security adviser Thomas Donilon, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

Davutoglu says Iran’s mounting stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium “is the critical issue to deal with.” Stockpiling 20 percent enriched uranium sets off alarms because enough of it can be further purified relatively quickly into the fuel for a nuclear bomb.

Yet at the same time he says Iran’s progress in enrichment means that past proposals for defusing the Iranian nuclear crisis with nuclear fuel swap deals – including one from Turkey and Brazil in 2010—are now outdated. But the earlier proposals could still serve as a “frame of reference” for a new deal, he adds.

Davutoglu’s comments on the Iranian crisis come as diplomatic circles debate whether the terms for talks on Iran’s nuclear program can be agreed soon. There is concern that Israel could decide that Iran’s progress is nearing a point where the program would be invulnerable to attack. It might then launch an airstrike on Iran’s nuclear sites.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is awaiting an official Iranian response to an Oct. 21 letter she addressed to the Iranian government, in which she invited Iran to international talks but also laid out the conditions for their resumption.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials have been telling the world that Iran is ready to resume talks “without preconditions” – a formula which sounds like complete openness to negotiations, but which might also be taken to suggest that Iran is balking at the West’s conditions.

Senior European officials have said recently that a resumption of talks hinges on Iran suspending enrichment, and agreeing to allow inspectors into all of its facilities to verify suspension.                   

On Syria, Davutoglu will be speaking with American officials about the creation of a group of “friends of the people of Syria," he told reporters Friday. But he refrained from offering any specifics on how that group might go about providing what he said at this point would be only humanitarian aid.

“The international community has a responsibility to protect innocent people under attack from their own government,” he said. Yet even as he compared Syria to the Balkans in the 1990s – “We wanted [Syrian President] Assad to be a Gorbachev,” he said, “but he preferred to be Milosevic” – he cautioned that he does “not yet” see the situation warranting an intervention from NATO or any other armed international force.

In the meantime, he said Turkey will continue to provide a safe haven for any Syrians seeking refuge.

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