Why Iran got huffy about a certain locale for next nuclear talks

The exact words were, 'Iranian officials are not interested in Turkey as the host.' The declaration masks a mountain of Persian hurt over the Turks and their shifting diplomacy in the region.

Vahid Salemi/AP
Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, is accompanied by Iranian Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, left, during an official welcoming ceremony in Tehran, last week. Relations between the two countries have strained somewhat over Turkey's apparent aspiration to increase its influence in the region.

Location, as they say, is everything – in real estate, and as it turns out, in high-stakes diplomacy as well.

This week’s case in point: Iran’s rejection of Istanbul as the venue for planned talks between Tehran and world powers on the Iranian nuclear program. Western powers had thought the Turkish city that spans two continents, Asia and Europe, would be ideal.

But Iran is having none of it, for reasons that say more about Tehran’s peevishness over Turkey’s rise as a regional power than about any Iranian dislike for the Bosphorus.

“Iranian officials are not interested in Turkey as the host,” sniffed Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of Paliament’s powerful committee for national security and foreign policy. In one short sentence, Mr. Boroujerdi dissed an erstwhile friend that Tehran is now alarmed to see emerging as a regional rival.

His comment masks a mountain of Persian hurt over the Turks and their shifting diplomacy in the region.

Perhaps Istanbul’s candidacy for the high-profile meetings wasn’t helped by the fact that US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is the one who announced – apparently prematurely – that the talks would take place there between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the US, Russia, China, France and Britain) plus Germany.

But Iran’s issues with Turkey run much deeper than a pique over Ankara’s friendship with Washington, which is nothing new. What galls the Iranians is how Turkish leaders have seized upon the Arab Spring, and in particular the crisis in neighboring Syria, to establish Turkey as a regional power and influence – and in ways that don’t suit Tehran.

That is new, and it is Iran’s displeasure with this turn of events that hangs like a backdrop to Boroujerdi’s dismissal of Istanbul as the nuclear-talks venue.

Iran has long had its own designs on emerging as the region’s dominant power, and it saw that calling boosted in a number of ways over the past decade – not least by the demise of Saddam Hussein and the advent of an Iraqi regime dominated by the country’s Shiite majority. (As telling as Boroujerdi’s rejection of Istanbul was his support for holding the nuclear talks in Baghdad, which he described as ideal because of Iraq’s good relations with both Iran and the US.)

A pillar of Iran’s regional design is its close relationship with Syria and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The cracks that have weakened that pillar, as Mr. Assad has battled an unbending opposition, have alarmed Tehran and presented it with the prospect of losing a crucial base of influence. Iran has watched its regional power wane as Turkey has waxed stronger, playing an important role as go-between for the region and the West, and siding with the winners in the region’s revolutions.

Iran sees Turkey playing a role it fancied for itself – although certainly it would have cut it from a different cloth – and it is miffed. It will also do what it can – like nix Istanbul as the venue for talks the whole world will be watching – to slow Turkey’s rise to a position of regional influence it envisions for itself.

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