Iran’s discomfort with Istanbul as the venue of its nuclear talks with the six global powers has exposed the rift between Tehran and Ankara, apparently caused by Turkey’s support for Syria and its decision to scale down oil imports from Iran in accordance with the wishes of the United States.
After a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Iranian officials announced that Tehran was looking at Baghdad or even China as the venue of the upcoming talks slated for April 13. Iran has thus bluntly contradicted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent assertion in Riyadh that Istanbul would be the venue of the crucial round of nuclear talks which have been stalled since January 2011. Even before Iran’s disenchantment with Turkey as the venue of the talks went viral over cyberspace and satellite channels, Ms. Clinton seemed to backtrack from her earlier stance. On Tuesday, she said, without commenting on the venue, that she expected the talks to “commence within the next several weeks”.
Analysts say that Iran’s about- face on Turkey is bound to embarrass Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After his visit to Tehran last week and talks with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Turkish leader had reiterated his assertion that Iran was not engaged in developing atomic weapons. He had also defended Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, and eloquently drawn attention to the “international community’s” double standards on Israel, which he alleged was sitting on hundreds of nuclear warheads.
Iran’s announcement has triggered a wave of speculation about the real reasons behind its decision. Observers say that Turkey playing host to the anti-regime Friends of Syria conference targeting Damascus, Iran’s key regional ally, has piqued the establishment in Tehran. On Wednesday, Iran’s defence minister said that the Istanbul conference, which pledged a $100 million aid package for the opposition, was meant to promote the regional interests of Israel.
Turkey’s decision to substantially reduce oil purchases from Iran, in line with American expectations, and increase imports from Libya, also does not appear to have gone down too well in Tehran. “We believe that this was the right step to take, to boost our commercial relationship with Libya and help with the normalisation of the country. We will accordingly reduce the amount of crude oil purchased from Iran,” said Taner Yildiz, Turkey’s energy minister.
Justifying Iran’s decision, foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, who had earlier declared Turkey as his country’s favoured destination for the proposed talks, said that new developments had taken place which Iran could not ignore. “Holding talks in Baghdad, and also China, as venue has been out there,” Mr. Salehi said after Wednesday’s cabinet meeting. “This is a course that both sides need to agree on ... İstanbul was our initial proposal as the venue for the talks. The Europeans initially rejected but then agreed. At the same time, we had other countries in mind.”
In Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari confirmed that a visiting Iranian delegation on Tuesday had proposed Baghdad as the venue for the talks. Quick off the blocks, the Iraqis on Wednesday invited ambassadors of the six global powers to formally hand over a letter with the proposal.
Analysts say that the West may find it difficult to summarily dismiss Baghdad as the venue of the talks. The hosting of a major international conference would mean the emergence of perceived normality in Iraq, which can be packaged as an implicit justification of the U.S.-led invasion of the country nine years ago.