Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ahmadinejad in İstanbul

PHOTO FROM Reuters by way of Today's Zaman

President Gül has spent the past weeks preparing for the working visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad is being received over the protests of Israel and the United States, and will arrive a month following a historic energy agreement reached between the two countries last month (see July 2 post). Ties between both countries have also grown stronger thanks to the security collaboration between both in dealing with PKK and PJAK terrorism threats. While the main focus of Ahmadinejad's visit is an energy accord, which was said to be coming together before Ahmadinejad's visit, reports have indicated that the Iranian position has shifted in recent days and that an agreement is unlikely at this exact time. However, the visit will allow Ahmadinejad to launch attacks on Israel and the United States from within Turkey, something that will not sit well with either ally, but will nonetheless be tolerated. There is also some talk about Turkey playing a pivotal role in the six-party talks being held with Iran over its nuclear program, but just how pivotal role is doubtful and talks are not the focus of the trip. Much of the focus in the Turkish media has been to just how the Iranian leader was received. As plans were first being drawn up, it seems that Ahmadinejad was to visit Ankara; however, when it became obvious that he was unwilling to visit Anıtkabır, the mausoleum that houses Atatürk's tomb and to which it is customary that foreign leaders pay homage during official state visits, Gül moved the meeting to İstanbul and labelled it a "working visit."

In his analysis today in the Eurasia Daily Monitor, Gareth Jenkins writes of Ahmadinejad's visit fitting within a larger picture of AKP naivete when it comes to foreign affairs. If AKP is serious about joining the EU, from Jenkins' perspective, and one with which I am inclined to agree, it is beneficial for the country to start taking foreign policy stances more in line with the EU. Instead, as I wrote in my Aug. 2 post in response to another of Jenkins' posts, AKP foreign policy has assumed a sort of schitzophrenia while adopting an increasingly antagonistic stance toward Europe. From Jenkins (excerpt):
The same naivety can also be seen in the AKP’s decision to push ahead with Ahmadinejad’s visit. There is no reason to doubt that AKP officials genuinely believe that the visit offers an opportunity for Turkey to boost its international standing by acting as an intermediary in the long-running standoff between Tehran and the international community over its nuclear program. What they do not appear to understand is how Ahmadinejad will use the visit to demonstrate both to the international community and to the public in Iran that the country is not alone.

Speaking to Turkish journalists on the eve of his visit to Turkey, Ahmadinejad was effusive in his praise for the “great Turkish people,” the “great friendship between Turkey and Iran,” and his pleasure about the “ever-growing political ties” (CNNTurk, NTV, August 13). He also took the opportunity of the interview being broadcast at prime time on Turkish television to launch one of his characteristic tirades against Israel and repeat his support for the Palestinian opposition to what he described as the “occupying Zionist forces” (CNNTurk, NTV, August 13).

In its eagerness to host Ahmadinejad, the AKP also acceded to his refusal to visit Anitkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the militant secularist who founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923. Anitkabir is an essential part of a visit by any head of state to Turkey. Even al-Bashir visited Anitkabir to pay his respects, but the Iranians have consistently refused to do so.

When it became clear that Ahmadinejad would not visit Anitkabir, his planned “official visit” was quickly downgraded to a “working visit”; and it was agreed that he would meet with both Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul not in Ankara, the capital of the modern republic, but in Istanbul, the old Ottoman capital (Hurriyet, Milliyet, August 5).

In his interview on Turkish television, Ahmadinejad disingenuously claimed that he was traveling to Istanbul because that was where Gul and Erdogan were going to be anyway. This is not true; but when asked whether this meant that he would have visited Anitkabir if Gul and Erdogan had agreed to meet him in Ankara, Ahmadinejad prevaricated. “Turkey is a very large country and has a large population. There are a lot of places in Turkey. Of course, that means that there are many places for the president to go to,” he said (CNNTurk, NTV, August 13).

In the run-up to Ahmadinejad’s visit, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan attacked the Turkish media for its coverage of his refusal to visit Anitkabir. “I consider these discussions about the details of the visit irrelevant,” declared Babacan (Zaman, Hurriyet, Milliyet, Radikal, August 5).

But, as so often, the devil is in the details.

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