Iran wants chess, not American football
On the eve of possible talks between the United States and Iran, Ankara is encouraging Iranian leaders to seize the opportunity for peace now that a new administration that favors dialogue is in office in Washington.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul went to Tehran for a summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization, an international organization formed by Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Turkish press reported that in addition to attending the summit, Gul will meet separately in Tehran with Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
At this stage it is not expected that Gul will carry any message from the United States, but it was reported that he would inform the Iranian leaders about US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Ankara. In addition, the Turkish press is reporting that Gul will encourage Iranian leaders to negotiate with the United States. Gul's message will be: "You cannot solve the problem while fists are in the air. Problems can only be solved through dialogue at negotiation tables."
While encouraging Iran to hold discussions with the United States, Turkey is not going so far as to declare itself a mediator between Washington and Tehran. Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said that he would not carry a message from the United States to Iranian officials on his current visit. Turkey would, however, consider serving as a mediator if both sides requested it. Clinton stated that "the United States would ask Turkey to help push forward President Obama's plan to engage Iran".
The Iranian side, however, does not seem as enthusiastic about opening up contacts with the United States. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, "We are closely pursuing all the current developments in Washington's policies. However, we have seen no revolution as a result of Barack Obama's change motto."
To understand Iran's attitude, one must remember its long history of mistrust toward the United States. The official Iranian News Agency IRNA quotes a United Kingdom-based Iranian political analyst Bijan Zhand Shakibi as saying, "I remain skeptical that the US will make any dramatic moves. The domestic political climate in America and the geopolitical situation in the Middle East play a major role in the US's inability or unwillingness to make a dramatic move toward Iran."
The Iranian side says that the United States should take the first step toward Iran. Mottaki has stated, "The prospects for the establishment of relations between Iran and the US will not be bright until the US changes its approach."
Iranian leaders see the US attitude as aggressive. Mottaki describes the differences in approach between the United States and Iran with an analogy to American football and a game of chess. "We have no interest in American football. Rather, we are interested in a fair chess match, which requires fortitude and patience because in chess an unnecessary or illogical move will lead to defeat."
With this "chess game" mentality, Iranians misunderstand Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Ankara "as a calculated move to reduce tensions between the two sides", wrote Siaset-e Rouz in the Iran Daily on March 9. One of the challenges between Ankara and Washington that Siaset-e Rouz lists is the "differences between the two countries regarding regional developments, in particular how to interact with Iran, Palestine, and Iraq, plus the excessive demands of the US in its relations with the Turks".
While the United States seizes every opportunity, including Turkey's good relations with Iran, to end Iran's nuclear weapons program, Iranians think that Clinton visited Turkey to reduce the tension with the United States. Overcoming Iran's misunderstanding of world politics, even Turkish-US relations, will be Ankara's biggest problem in convincing Tehran to come to the negotiating table, if such a mediatory role is requested by both sides.
Moreover, Iran's "chess game" with the world would make a Turkish role even more difficult. On February 26, for example, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed that Iran had asked Turkey to mediate between the United States and Iran during the George W Bush administration; but a week later Hasan Gasgavi, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, told the conservative Iranian daily Kayhan that "Iran has asked neither Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan nor any other foreign dignitary to serve as a mediator between Iran and the United States".
Gasgavi added that "In the last 30 years there is no channel that [has been] closed. In addition, there is no unexpected development that [would] require someone to open [a] channel. If needed, Iran and the US [can] officially share their views in a diplomatic manner".
Iran's reluctant attitude indicates two things:
First, negotiations between Iran and the United States would be a major policy shift for Iran, requiring political and psychological preparation on a societal as well as a leadership level. Iran's zigzag attitude about whether it wants Turkey to be a mediator shows hesitancy in the Iranian leadership. Given that the Foreign Ministry spokesman denied to a conservative newspaper that Iran had asked Turkey to serve as a mediator indicates that conservative segments of Iranian society and the leadership may be resisting the idea of negotiations with the United States. In fact, Gul's planned meeting with Ali Khamenei may have been planned for the purpose of convincing the conservative leadership to accept negotiations.
Second, requesting Turkish mediation would harm Iran's self-proclaimed role of being a regional power. If Turkey successfully convinced Iran and the United States to begin negotiations, it would make Ankara and Tehran competitors for the role of regional power. Such a peace agreement would make Turkey appear as an absolute regional power while Iran would seem to be jumping on the Turkish bandwagon. For this reason, Iran would not want Turkey to be the peace broker and the policy maker of the region, however necessary it might be.
Tehran would want direct talks with the United States only if it would clearly serve Iran's national interests. If direct negotiations with the US should ever take place, however, Iran might want Turkey to be "the plumber"; whenever the diplomatic "pipes" became clogged, Turkey could be there silently waiting to reopen the blocked channel but not to act as mediator.
If, however, Iran feels further isolated from the rest of the world, it might engage Turkey in a mediatory role. Another possibility would be for the Obama administration to ask Turkey to test the waters to determine whether Iran would want to open negotiations. In that case, Iran might accept Turkey's services.