ISTANBUL Reuters) - Even for a country that boasts about being a bridge between East and West, the Middle East and Europe, Turkey’s diplomacy this week must have seemed a bit of a perilous balancing act.
Underlying unique contacts, Turkish leaders have welcomed Iran’s foreign minister as Western powers increased pressure on Tehran over its nuclear plans, hosted a meeting of NATO allies and held talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Yet underneath the talk of Turkey’s geostrategic importance from the Balkans to the Caucasus to Afghanistan, Ankara’s multifaceted foreign policy might soon face a test which would force it to take sides.
“Turkey has been following a very independent course on its foreign policy and that has disappointed some of its traditional Western allies, but I think Turkey is heading for a crucial test on Iran,” said Ian Lesser, from the German Marshall Fund.
“Should the U.N. Security Council take up a vote on imposing sanctions on Iran, Turkey will be on the spot,” Lesser said.
Western powers are seeking to have the U.N. Security Council approve fresh sanctions against Iran by the end of March to prod Tehran into freezing uranium enrichment, which can have peaceful or military purposes. Turkey, which has said it opposes sanctions, is currently a non-permanent member of the council.
“You can’t be all things all the time on all matters, which is what Turkey wants,” a foreign diplomat based in Ankara said. “The moment of definition might be approaching.”
Questions have multiplied in recent months over whether European Union candidate Turkey’s foreign policy is slowly turning East and abandoning its long-time Western orientation.
Growing ties with Tehran and other fellow Muslim nations and a deterioration in its relations with Israel have prompted talk in some circles of a “change of axis” by Turkey, a Muslim and secular state that has been a member of NATO since 1952.
The United States, embroiled in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and keen to improve ties with China and Russia, does not seem unduly concerned about Ankara’s foreign policy. Instead, it has stressed areas where the two allies can work together.
“From the Balkans to the Black Sea, from the Middle East to India, there is no country more successful and stable than Turkey, we should never forget this,” U.S. ambassador James Jeffrey told a Turkish-U.S. business audience last week.
Gates, who is in Istanbul attending a NATO meeting to discuss security in Afghanistan and Kosovo, is due to meet Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan later on Friday.
Some of Turkey’s Western allies have expressed concern that Ankara’s growing ties with Iran -- by lessening that country’s sense of isolation -- may frustrate diplomatic efforts to prevent Tehran from building a nuclear bomb.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan stunned some of Ankara’s traditional friends by recently calling Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “good friend” and by referring to talk of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme as “gossip”.
Turkish-Iranian friendship was on display on Wednesday when Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki visited Ankara. Turkey has said it does not favour sanctions, but dialogue.
“We are seeing that Turkish leaders have sympathy for Iran on the nuclear issue. Conversations, photographs or TV images depict Turkish leaders arm-in-arm with their Iranian counterparts and hugging each other,” leading commentator Mehmet Ali Birand said.
Lesser said that should Ankara vote against any sanctions or abstain it would add tensions to Turkey’s ties with the West, in particular with the United States. “It wouldn’t be a revolution in foreign policy, but certainly a surprising development.”
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen played down reports of rifts over Ankara’s foreign policy.
“I think Turkey for geographical and political reasons can and will play an instrumental role,” he told reporters here.
But he urged Turkey to solve its differences with the EU over the divided island of Cyprus, a dispute which has spilled over into NATO operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Ankara says having good ties with Iran and seeking EU membership are not mutually exclusive. In line with EU and Washington policy, it opposes Iran having nuclear arms and has offered to mediate between global powers and Tehran.
Turkey has access to the different blocs within the Iranian leadership that the United States and Britain lack.
Turkish officials say a patient approach is needed with the Iranians that Western governments don’t always realise.
“They invented chess. You have to find a balance and an edge with them,” a senior Turkish official in Ankara said. “There are no short cuts with them.”
Ambassador Jeffrey said he didn’t see Ankara’s engagement of Iran as a problem, but said he was skeptical it can persuade Iran to abandon any ambitions it might have for a nuclear bomb.