Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (left) and his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, shake hands at the end of their April 20 press conference in Tehran. Turkey is opposed to a new round of U.N. sanctions against Iran and is trying to help Iran and the U.S. and other Western countries find a middle way on the nuclear issue.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (left) and his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, shake hands at the end of their April 20 press conference in Tehran. Turkey is opposed to a new round of U.N. sanctions against Iran and is trying to help Iran and the U.S. and other Western countries find a middle way on the nuclear issue. Vahid Salemi/AP
As the Obama administration pushes for tougher international sanctions against Iran, Turkey is emerging as a key player in the Iran nuclear controversy.
Turkey's foreign minister recently returned from Tehran, sounding very negative about sanctions. Turkey is pushing hard for a resolution that would avoid sanctions or a military strike.
Analysts say Turkey has been steadily strengthening its hand in the region and is now an important part of the Iran nuclear story, for better or worse.
When Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu returned from the Iranian capital, he said he was flatly opposed to a new round of U.N. sanctions.
Barcin Yinanc, an editor with the center-right Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review, says Turkey has long favored diplomatic outreach over punitive measures. But lately, Turkish leaders have practically been voicing Iran's own arguments against sanctions, Yinanc says.
"In the past, Turkey used to be much more in alliance with the United States and the European Union. Nowadays, we see it has the self-confidence of saying, 'No, I'm not going to go and take the same line with the superpower, because I've got too much at stake,' and Turkey believes that it can play a role where it can find a middle way," Yinanc says.
Walking Tightrope Between Iran And West
At the same time, Turkey's insistence that more can be done diplomatically, short of sanctions and well short of a military strike, is colliding with a growing impatience in Washington and elsewhere. Analysts have compared Turkey's new policy with walking a tightrope in high political winds.
Ilter Turkmen, a former ambassador and retired member of Turkey's diplomatic corps, says Turkey's antipathy to sanctions and its push for engagement with Tehran come from the historical ties between two countries that share a long border — one that has remained unchanged for centuries.
Even so, he doubts Turkey would be the lone holdout against sanctions if it comes to a vote at the U.N. Security Council.
"Of course, if China is also persuaded to support the sanctions, and if Turkey votes differently from the U.S., the U.K. and France, this might create a problem. I think that this issue is the most critical issue at this juncture between Turkey and the United States," Turkmen says.
Scott Peterson, a journalist with The Christian Science Monitor who has covered Iran for years and is the author of a forthcoming book about Iran, says part of Turkey's new strategy has involved ratcheting up its criticism of Israeli policies.
That, he says, has enhanced Turkey's street credibility in Arab states and Iran, and sharpened the notion that Ankara can be a centrist mediator — which in their eyes means a mediator who is not suspected of doing Israel's bidding.
"The beautiful role that Turkey might be able to play, the thing that it could do, is it could actually help both sides to achieve some kind of a deal while enabling both of them to save face. In other words, Turkey really can be that kind of a mediator," Peterson says.
How Much Sway With Tehran?
But some wonder how far the Iranians are willing to go toward finding a compromise on the nuclear issue, no matter how hard Turkey struggles to be part of a solution.
Hugh Pope, Turkey project director for the International Crisis Group in Istanbul, says Turkey clearly does not want a nuclear-armed Iran, and is not convinced by Tehran's claims that its program is strictly peaceful.
"Some senior Turkish officials have said that they do believe that Iran wants to make a bomb. But they also have drawn another conclusion: that there's nobody in this world who can stop that if the Iranians want to do it," Pope says.
"A military intervention might delay this by a couple of years, according to some people, but it's not going to stop it. The same thing goes for sanctions. As we saw with Iraq, sanctions only keep hard-line regimes in power, usually. And Turkey's seen that before," he says.
The question is whether Turkey — the master salesman through the ages — can now sell a peaceful alternative to the U.S. and Iran, two countries whose views of each other are still colored by anger over past grievances.