Cancellation of Ahmadinejad visit exposes rift

Turkey’s decision to seek Patriot missiles from NATO for deployment along the Syrian border has caused a major disruption in its ties with Iran — a country that has so far viewed Ankara, a top energy importer, as a trusted partner in its nuclear diplomacy with the West.

The growing rift was brought into focus by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who cancelled his visit scheduled for Monday. Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency, quoting diplomats attributed the cancellation to scheduling difficulties.

However, the timing of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s decision to stay away from Konya — the city where he was invited by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish Prime Minister, for the death anniversary of the 13th-century Sufi mystic Jalâl ad-Dîn Muhammad Balkhî — has, raised eyebrows.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s absence in Konya has been preceded by a statement from Hassan Firouzabadi, Iran’s armed force chief, which was harshly critical of Turkey.

“Each one of these Patriots is a black mark on the world map, and is meant to cause a world war. They are making plans for a world war, and this is very dangerous for the future of humanity and for the future of Europe itself,” warned General Firouzabadi.

General Firouzabadi’s remarks seemed to conjure images of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when deployment of Russian missiles in Cuba had nearly led to war with the United States.

Some analysts point out that Iran is worried that once the Patriot anti-missile and anti-aircraft batteries are installed, Turkey — free from threat of Syrian air strikes — would be emboldened to escalate support for the armed Syrian opposition.

In turn, that would pose a graver threat to the survivability of the pro-Iranian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

It was therefore unsurprising that Ali Akbar Salehi, Iranian Foreign Minister, followed up warning with an unambiguous statement in support of Mr. Assad. Mr. Salehi said Iran would do everything in its power to thwart foreign efforts for “regime change” in Syria. Iran considers Syria a lynchpin of the “axis of resistance” against Israel that also includes the Lebanese Hizbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.

Sections of the Russian intelligentsia are of the view that deployment of Patriot missiles are a greater threat to Iran rather than to Syria.

Russia’s Kommersant daily quoted a Russian diplomatic source as saying: “Turkey has explained its request to NATO as exclusively related to its need to defend itself from a possible attack from the Syrian army. But there could be a second motivation for this action, which is a preparation for military strike against Iran.”

Russia Today quoted Dmitry Polikanov of the Moscow-based PIR Centre as saying the Patriot units are mobile and “can be moved to any point in Turkey”.

“It’s only about 500 km from where the units will be located to Tabriz in Iran, where some say there are secret nuclear facilities,” he observed.

The six Patriot batteries being drawn from NATO members Germany, Netherlands and the U.S. will lead to the accompanying deployment at Syria’s doorstep of around 400 German troops, 360 Dutch soldiers and another 400 U.S. servicemen.

The militarisation of the border, and the threat it poses to Syria and Iran appears to be generating a momentum for closer ties between Moscow and Tehran.

In a telephone conversation with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that any “provocation may trigger a very serious conflict”.

On a visit to Turkey in early December, Russian President, Vladimir Putin said accumulation of weaponry at the borders does not contribute to regional stability.

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