LONDON Iran's fiery President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be in Turkey on Thursday looking for at least moral support from his increasingly influential neighbor a month before nuclear talks with six major powers in Istanbul.
Iran's agreement to hold another round of negotiations over its nuclear programme with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States was the only tangible result of talks in Geneva this month. Hopes for a breakthrough are slight.
Iran had wanted to hold that meeting in Istanbul also, but the European Union, whose foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is leading negotiations for the so-called P5+1, resisted as it saw Turkey's involvement in the talks as a complicating factor.
Ahmadinejad's official reason for going to Turkey now is for a meeting that also includes Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asian states, but he will also have one-to-one talks with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
"I assume the nuclear talks Turkey will host in January between Iran and the powers will be part of the agenda, but will not be the only topic on the agenda," said Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal.
After years of successfully exploiting the divisions within U.N. Security Council to side-step hard-hitting sanctions, Iran was subjected to a series of U.N., U.S. and EU injunctions from June directed at its important energy sector.
While Iran has insisted sanctions are having no effect, political analysts say the unexpected severity of the measures is an important factor in bringing Tehran back to talks.
The big powers want Iran to halt its uranium enrichment programme, which they suspect is a cover for an effort to build a nuclear arsenal. Iran says it has the right to enrich uranium for civilian use and does not want atomic weapons.
Turkey, together with Brazil, brokered a resolution to try to avert sanctions in May. Iran first agreed to the deal, but it was too late to stave off sanctions.
Feeling isolated, Iran is once more looking to its increasingly economically powerful and diplomatically assertive western neighbor to help relieve the pressure.
"Despite all of Iran's bluster and pretence of being so confident, ... the Iranians are suffering from a sense of loneliness and a significant distrust of the other states in the P5+1 which makes it extremely difficult to agree to anything," said Trita Parsi, a U.S.-based Iran expert.
Professor Scott Lucas, academic and editor of the online journal EA WorldView, said: "From Iran's standpoint, they do see Turkey as a broker and that will be Ahmadinejad's public stance, to include the Turks in the talks."
TURKEY AS MEDIATOR?
Turkey's governing AK Party, which emerged from a series of banned Islamist movements, has reached out to the likes of Iran, Syria and the Palestinian movement Hamas, and stood up to U.S. ally Israel, enhancing Erdogan's popularity in the Middle East.
Ankara's policy of having "zero problems with neighbors" has alarmed some in the United States who would like to see its NATO ally lining up squarely behind its plan of isolating the Islamic Republic, but it has also given Turkey, in Iran's eyes, the credibility to act a mediator in the nuclear dispute.
Ahmadinejad's visit also comes at a time when Iran's foreign policy, according to some analysts, is in some disarray. He unceremoniously sacked his foreign minister last week, replacing him with a close ally, nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi.
At least part of the reason for the change was that the outgoing minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, had "harshly criticized the president for setting up a parallel diplomatic apparatus," said Khabaronline, a website close to the government.
Ahmadinejad had appointed a series of envoys, sending them on diplomatic missions, independent of the Foreign Ministry.
To complicate matters further, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful figure in Iran, sent his own foreign policy adviser to Turkey last week to meet Erdogan.
The newspaper Kayhan, controlled by Khamenei, criticized the manner in which the president sacked Mottaki, giving rise to some analysts seeing a possible division between the two. It was not clear if Ali Akbar Velayati's visit to Turkey was merely ceremonial or yet another strand to Iran's foreign policy.
Salehi spoke of Turkey's growing importance at his inaugural address on taking up his new job. It is possible Iran will formally ask Turkey to take on the role of mediator with the P5+1, or perhaps join the already unwieldy group.
Turkey, for its part, says it is willing to help.
"Turkey is hosting the meeting. If we are asked to do anything else we will do our best," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Unal.
"I think it sees negotiating with Turkey as far preferable to negotiating with the Americans or the West," David Hartwell, IHS Jane's North Africa and Middle East analyst.
Iran might see Turkey's increasing independent foreign policy as way to drive a wedge between Ankara and Washington, he said.
"I think that may be slightly an idealistic hope on the part of the Iranians. The Turks ... have no desire, I think, to be seen to be used by the Iranians."
(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; editing by Andrew Dobbie)