Turkish President Abdullah Gul, center, is welcomed to Iran by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, right, in Tehran on Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011. Gul is on a three-day visit, the first visit to Iran by a Turkish president in 9 years. (AP Photo)
(CNSNews.com) – On a visit to Iran that will heighten concerns in the U.S. about his nation’s policy shift, Turkish President Abdullah Gul is strengthening political and economic ties with Iran, winning praise from his Iranian counterpart for defending Iran’s rights “in all international forums.”
Gul’s three-day visit comes as Western governments condemn the Iranian government’s continuing suppression of opposition supporters and the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog confirms ongoing uranium enrichment in defiance of Security Council resolutions.
In both of those areas, the Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has refused to side against Tehran at the U.N.
Gul met with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday as security forces clashed with opposition supporters who defied a ban to hold demonstrations against the government and in support of the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
In an unconfirmed report, an Iranian human rights group said at least one protestor was killed and several injured when security forces opened fire on one group in the capital, and that some arrests were made. Opposition leaders earlier were placed under house arrest.
Foreign media have been banned from covering the protests, and Iran’s state media outlets were silent about them. Some video clips showing scenes of protests were uploaded on the video-sharing Web site YouTube.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley expressed concern about the reported death, saying the U.S. “condemn[s] in the strongest terms any use of violence against people peacefully assembling and expressing their desire for freedom and reform.”
This photo, taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran shows Iranian protestors attending an anti-government protest as a garbage can is set on fire, in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Feb. 14, 2011. (AP Photo)
“We wish the opposition and the brave people in the streets across cities in Iran the same opportunity that they saw their Egyptian counterparts seize in the last week,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters after a meeting on Capitol Hill.
During a joint press conference in Tehran with Ahmadinejad, Gul referred to “major changes” underway in the Middle East and Islamic world and said countries should implement political and economic reforms in line with their peoples’ desires.
He made no direct reference to the situation in the country he was visiting, however. In reporting his remarks, the semi-official Iranian news agency Fars said that Gul had been “referring to the recent developments in Egypt and Tunisia.”
Turkey has been held up – by the Obama administration and its predecessor, among others – as a “model” of democracy in a Muslim-majority nation, an example for other countries in the region to follow.
Although Turkey voiced support for the Egyptian people during the three weeks of protests that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation last week, it has been silent, in public at least, about repression in Iran since Ahmadinejad’s hotly disputed June 2009 reelection triggered massive protests and a violent crackdown.
Last December, Turkey chose not to vote when the U.N. General Assembly considered a resolution expressing concern about human rights violations in Iran.
Turkey’s attitude towards Iran’s nuclear activities has also troubled the U.S. and other countries that believe the civilian program is a cover for attempts to develop a weapons capability.
As a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Turkey voted last June against a U.S.-led effort to impose a fresh round of sanctions against Iran.
Although the resolution passed, Turkey’s vote weakened the strong message the Obama administration hoped to send both to Iran and other would-be proliferators. Brazil also voted no and Lebanon abstained, but Turkey’s opposition was more significant, given that it is a NATO ally.
In Tehran on Monday, Ahmadinejad told Gul that Iran was “grateful to Turkey for its favorable stance toward Iran’s nuclear rights.” He also said Iran wanted Turkey to serve as a mediator in multilateral talks on the nuclear issue. Turkey last month hosted talks between Iran and six leading countries on the nuclear dispute, but no progress was reported.
Ahead of his visit to Iran, Gul said in Ankara Sunday, “We support Iran’s cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency to alleviate the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program.”
Iran is not, however, cooperating satisfactorily with the IAEA, according to the Vienna-based agency’s director, Yukia Amano.
He told the Washington Post in comments published on Monday that Iran was “not sufficiently” respecting and implementing rules that the IAEA is mandated to oversee.
Amano said Iran’s enrichment of uranium was continuing in violation of Security Council resolutions calling for its suspension. Iran now has “well over 3,000 kilograms” of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent and the amount is steadily increasing, he said.
The “well over 3,000 kilograms” is up from the total of 2,803 kg cited in the agency’s last report on Iran, issued in September, and up from some 1,500 kg in October 2009.
Enrichment to 3.5 percent is the grade required to fuel a power plant. Iran’s atomic agency last year began enriching uranium to 20 percent, the upper end of the required level for research reactors like a Tehran-based medical research facility. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched at more than 90 percent with about 25 kg is needed to make one crude atom bomb according to experts.
During his visit this week, Gul is scheduled to hold talks with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top figures in the Islamic republic.
He is traveling with a large business delegation, and discussed with Ahmadinejad the goal of increasing bilateral trade to $30 billion in five years, up from $10 billion today.