Turkey Uses Open Door Policy To Engage Iran

American ally Turkey has good relations with Iran. Earlier this month Turkey offered to take possession of about half of Iran's lightly enriched uranium so it could not be converted to nuclear weapons. This irked the U.S. which saw it as a ploy to forestall tighter sanctions against Iran. More than a million Iranians travel to Turkey each year, and Turkey welcomes the visitors.

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Now, two countries with close ties but very different approaches when it comes to dealing with Iran. The U.S. has been in a constant state of confrontation with Iran for three decades. But consider American ally Turkey. They've had good relations with Iran. More than a million Iranians travel to Turkey each year, and Turkey welcomes the visitors. NPR's Peter Kenyon has more.

PETER KENYON: Here in Istanbul's Pakseri(ph) district, buses line up for the trip to Iran. Iranians don't need visas to come here. Traffic is especially heavy during Iranian holidays, tour operators here say. They also say the U.N. or the Americans can push for all the Iranian sanctions they want, but Turks and Iranians will continue to visit and do business with one another.

Mr. MOHADDEN KAYA (Owner, Travel Office): (Through translator) It makes us really happy when the Iranians come. They come and spend their money, and we can make a living.

KENYON: Mohadden Kaya mans one of the ramshackle travel offices that ring the bus terminal. His parents are from Iran, so he's long known what Turkish travel agent Jem Polotoglu learned 10 years ago when he began bringing Iranians in on package holiday tours. Polotoglu says some Europeans who at first were reluctant to socialize with the Iranians soon discovered how much fun they are.

Mr. JEM POLOTOGLU (Travel Agent): They like music. They like dance. They drink. And they make all the excursion, actually. For us, these are good clients.

KENYON: These days, Turkey finds itself under increasing pressure from Washington to punish Iran over its nuclear program. But while Turkey also opposes a nuclear-armed Iran, Ankara tends to extol the benefits of cooperation and engagement, a strategy the Obama administration has cooled on since coming to power.

To some extent, Western and Turkish analysts say American and Iranian views of each other are clouded by past grievances that refuse to fade from memory. Some Iranians are fond of arguing that had the CIA not engineered the ouster of Iran's nationalist prime minister in 1953 and re-imposed the dictatorial rule of the Shah, the Islamic Revolution might not have succeeded 23 years later.

For many Americans, cooperation is unthinkable with a state that funds designated terrorist groups - such as Hezbollah and Hamas - and whose president matter-of-factly speaks of the elimination of the state of Israel.

But Hugh Pope with the International Crisis Group in Istanbul says despite the obvious historical problems dividing America and Iran, it's fascinating to look at Turkey's open-door approach versus the American penchant for isolation and sanction and imagine what might have been.

Mr. HUGH POPE (International Crisis Group): We have, for instance, in Turkey, 1.3 million Iranian tourists a year coming to visit and experience what it's like to be in a Muslim country at peace with the world and with a fast-developing economy.

Now, when you compare that to the, for instance, the American policy towards Iran, which is 30 years of sterile, rhetorical cockfighting about who's tougher. Now, if you'd had 30 years of millions Iranians seeing how it is to be integrated in the world, over time, the engagement is the way to make the Iranians feel that they don't need a bomb necessarily, and also will soften the unpredictable side of Iran.

KENYON: Western skeptics of this view say it's a noble sentiment, but at this point, Iran is close enough to acquiring a nuclear weapon that there isn't time to wait for people-to-people diplomacy to work. Still, as the rhetoric escalates in Washington and Tehran, Iranians will continue to pour into Turkey by the plane and busload, many of them enjoying freedoms their government works hard at depriving them of at home.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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