Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told President Obama Monday that the issue of Iran's nuclear program can be solved only through diplomacy – just as the Obama administration and other international powers are beginning to lose patience with Iran.
Mr. Erdogan sat down for lunch with Mr. Obama at the White House at a time when the United States is questioning some of the foreign-policy directions of the NATO alliance's only Muslim-majority member.
Chief among those concerns are Turkey's blooming relations with Tehran. The Obama administration would also like to see Turkey reverse its refusal – as a fellow Muslim country – to participate in combat operations in Afghanistan.
On Iran, Obama said, Turkey could be an "important player in trying to move" the country toward a diplomatic solution over its nuclear program.
But Obama has also said that he cannot wait forever for Iran to come to the negotiating table. The administration has started to threaten the imposition of new economic sanctions – an issue that could lead to a confrontation between the US and Turkey in the United Nations Security Council, where Turkey is currently a nonpermanent member.
In remarks to the media following his White House meetings, Erdogan repeated his view that concerns about Iran's nuclear program won't be addressed in a satisfactory manner either by force or through economic sanctions. "We need to establish an effort through diplomacy," he said.
The US was already uncomfortable enough when Erdogan visited Tehran in October and discussed regional solutions to regional problems with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran's supreme leader told Erdogan that the West is "incapable" of solving crises in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian territories. But it was dismayed when Turkey abstained in a vote by the board of the UN's nuclear watchdog that condemned Iran's recent nuclear developments.
Still, Erdogan called "ridiculous" growing Western fears that Turkey's emphasis on relations with Iran suggests it is turning away from Europe and toward the East. Explaining his East-West diplomacy as "trying to establish this very equal position," he added, "We are only improving our relations with our neighbors in the region and with our friends on the global scale."
As for Afghanistan, Obama Monday was all praise publicly, calling Turkey's contribution in Afghanistan "outstanding." Yet the US would like to see that military commitment beefed up and broadened.
The Turkish leader insisted that the 1,750 soldiers his country has deployed in training and other noncombat functions underscore a strong commitment to the alliance effort in Afghanistan. Under repeated questioning at the press conference, he suggested that while Turkey's involvement in the training of Afghan security forces will rise, it is unlikely that the total number of Turkish troops on the ground will increase significantly. There may be a "variation" of 50 to 100 troops, he said.
Also troubling the US is a recent souring of relations between Turkey and Israel, as Turkey jumped to the defense of Hamas following last winter's incursion by Israeli forces into Hamas-controlled Gaza.
The Bush administration was unhappy with Turkey's intermediary role between Israel and Syria, but the Obama administration has been more encouraging.
Erdogan acknowledged the recent "problems between our two countries," suggesting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's statements criticizing the Turkish leadership over its regional diplomacy are a roadblock in Turkey pursuing its intermediary role in the Middle East conflict.
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