Wednesday, 7 April 2010

A clash of summits

Today Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey is in Paris for talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy.

There is a growing international consensus that fresh UN sanctions (the fourth set) should be imposed on Iran for continuing to defy Security Council resolutions ordering it to suspend the enrichment of uranium. When Sarkozy was in America last week, he and President Obama came to a complete understanding about the need for new UN sanctions on Iran.

"My hope is that we are going to get this done this spring," said Obama. "I'm not interested in waiting months for a sanctions regime to be in place. The long-term consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran are unacceptable. And so Nicolas, myself and others agree that we have engaged."

Concurring, President Sarkozy said the US and French administrations were "inseparable" on the subject. "The time has come to take decisions. Iran cannot continue its mad race to build a nuclear weapon."

Which makes one rather wish to be a fly on the wall during the discussions today between Erdogan and Sarkozy. For Erdogan, in an interview before his visit, said he doubted that more sanctions against Iran would help persuade the Islamic Republic to assuage Western concerns about its nuclear program.

In an interview with the French newspaper, Le Figaro, Erdogan said he had repeatedly told his "dear friend" Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that there should be no nuclear arms in the region, "but," he is quoted as adding, "Iran does have a right to nuclear energy."

An Islamist axis including Turkey? Only a few years ago the idea would scarcely have been feasible. Turkey and Israel had long forged a close military, trade and cultural relationship. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel back in 1949 (even before the Shah's Iran in 1950), and Israel became a major exporter of arms to the country. Israeli holidaymakers and businessmen flocked to the country, and a major deal saw Turkey exporting vast container-loads of water to Israel as a preliminary to the plan to build a massive pipeline from Turkey to supply Israel with water, electricity, gas and oil.

Then the atmosphere soured. From the time Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, Turkey's old secularist, pro-Western stance began to change, and support for Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran began to dominate Turkey's approach to foreign affairs.

It was while still at university that Erdogan met Necmettin Erbakan, who went on to become Turkey's first Islamist prime minister. As a result, Erdogan entered Turkey's Islamist movement. He was a charismatic politician, rose rapidly, and in 1994 became mayor of Istanbul. But Turkey at the time was essentially a secular state in which religion, as a matter of policy, was kept entirely separate from government and administration. It was no great surprise that Erdogan's pro-Islamist sympathies earned him a conviction in 1998 for inciting religious hatred, and he went to jail for several months.

As a result, he was debarred from standing for election or holding public office. All the same, the Islamist AKP party, which he was leading by then, won a landslide victory in the 2002 elections. Soon afterwards the law was changed, and Erdogan became prime minister.

Rooted as he is in hard-line Islamism, Erdogan's unqualified condemnation of Israel's incursion into Gaza in December 2008 was no great surprise, nor the extraordinary scene at the Davos conference in January 2009, when he stormed out of a panel discussion after castigating Israeli President Shimon Peres for the action.

A report on Israel-Turkey relations prepared for the Israeli Foreign Ministry a few weeks ago by the Centre for Political Research concluded that ever since his party took power, Erdogan has conducted an ongoing process of fashioning a negative view of Israel in Turkish public opinion by backing radical Islamist newspapers like Vakit, which was originally also published in Germany, but was shut down there due to its anti-Semitic content.

"For Erdogan," the report concludes. "Israel-bashing is a way of bolstering his status with Islamic and Middle Eastern states, which Turkey would like to lead." And indeed, according to today's edition of Hurriyet, Turkey's daily English language newspaper, in recent remarks Erdoğan has gone as far as saying that Tehran’s nuclear programme is peaceful, and the Middle East’s nuclear problems can be laid at Israel's door.

Meanwhile Barack Obama’s nuclear summit is scheduled for April 12-13 in Washington. Britain will be represented not by the prime minister, but by the foreign secretary, David Miliband (a General Election campaign will be in full swing in the UK), but the meeting will be attended by Chinese President Hu Jintao, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and dozens of other leaders. Washington has welcomed China's decision in particular to join negotiations on imposing new sanctions on Tehran.

What the US administration may not have known, when doing so, is that China has also said it would take part in a nuclear disarmament conference in Tehran only five days after the Washington event. Iran says that experts and officials from some 60 countries have been invited to the April 17-18 meeting in Tehran, called "Nuclear energy for everyone, nuclear arms for no one."

Two nuclear summits within a week of each other. Interesting times we live in.

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