(CNSNews.com) – As the Obama administration scrambles to contain the diplomatic fallout with Turkey over the “Armenian genocide” resolution in the U.S. Congress, Turkey’s tilt towards Iran continues largely unnoticed.
Turkey’s “formerly Islamist” president, Abdullah Gul, in a weekend telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart called for a deepening of bilateral relations and voiced support for Iran in international forums. Turkey is non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the most important international body to have Iran on its current agenda.
The encounter was virtually ignored by media outside of Turkey and Iran.
Iran’s Fars news agency said Gul told President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “that the two countries would defend each other’s positions at international forums, and emphasized the importance of tightening the relations between them and of consulting on regional and security matters.”
Ahmadinejad praised Ankara’s policies and “strong and progressive” bilateral ties. He said that “regional and global developments are changing in favor of Iran and Turkey,” Turkey’s Dunya Gazetesi newspaper reported.
The phone call came three days after Gul and President Obama spoke on the phone, on the eve of a vote in the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on a resolution condemning as “genocide” the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire early last century.
The resolution passed by a single vote, Turkey withdrew its ambassador in protest, and the administration has vowed to prevent it from going to the House floor.
Obama has been at pains to strengthen ties with Turkey, a longstanding NATO ally, including it on the itinerary for his first presidential trip outside North America last April, and welcoming Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a personal friend when meeting with the Turk at the Oval Office in December.
Yet under Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) ally, Gul, Turkey’s policies regarding Iran are increasingly at odds with those of Washington. Turkish and Iranian leaders have paid reciprocal visits and Erdogan has referred to Ahmadinejad as his “friend.”
As the Obama administration works with allies to win support for a new U.N. Security Council Iran sanctions resolution, it faces resistance not just from China, but also from Turkey and several other non-permanent council members.
Last November, Turkey declined to support a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) censuring Iran for its uranium enrichment activities, choosing instead to abstain.
Gul’s conversation with Ahmadinejad came on the eve of a visit to the region by Vice President Joe Biden, with Iran high on the agenda.
While the U.S., Israel and others suspect that Iran’s nuclear program is a cover for attempts to develop an atomic weapons capability, Turkey says it supports Tehran’s position that the program is for peaceful purposes only.
Amid a growing trading relationship, the two nations have also signed agreements and protocols on energy investment, including joint exploration and production of natural gas reserves in Iran. Erdogan is pushing, against U.S. wishes, for Iran to be included in a key pipeline project that aims to bringing Caspian natural gas to Western markets via Turkey and bypassing Russia.
Iran and Turkey have long histories of animosity, underscored when the Islamic revolution of 1979 widened the gap between fundamentalist Iran and traditionally Muslim but secular Turkey.
The warming of tie over the past year or so has coincided with Ankara’s increasingly outspoken stance on the Israel-Arab conflict. Under Erdogan, Turkey has shifted from being a key mediator between Israel and its neighbors – notably Syria – to becoming one of Israel’s most ardent regional critics.
In a weekend interview with a Saudi newspaper Al Wattan, Erdogan expressed his support for the Palestinians, whether they were members of Mahmoud Abbas’ West Bank-based Fatah faction or Hamas, the Iranian-backed terrorist group ruling Gaza.
“I love my brothers in Fatah and my brothers in Hamas wherever they are,” the paper quoted the Turkish prime minister as saying, urging the rival factions to unite because division was only in the interests of their “enemies.”
Despite their AKP having Islamist roots, both Erdogan and Gul insist that it is committed to a secular state.
The government recently launched a crackdown on the fervently secular military, accusing dozens of commanders of links to an alleged coup plot.