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In Balancing Act, Turkey Hosts Iranian Nuclear Talks

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Iran's suspect nuclear program will again be in the spotlight this weekend when negotiators from Iran and six international powers meet in Istanbul.

Iran was reluctant to have Turkey host the meeting, reflecting Iran's growing unhappiness with Turkish foreign policy moves, especially its call for regime change in Syria, Iran's key ally in the Arab world.

Analyst and columnist Yavuz Baydar says Turkey has stuck its neck out for Iran in the past, defending what it calls Iran's peaceful nuclear energy program and even voting against U.N. sanctions on Iran two years ago.

But since the Syrian uprising began, Baydar says Turkey's relationship with Iran has turned from polite competition to what he calls "delicate brinksmanship" due to Turkey's dependence on Iranian oil.

Some observers feel that with the U.S. presidential election coming this fall, Washington is looking to the Istanbul meeting to reduce tensions with Iran.

If so, no one will be happier than Turkey. It has firmly aligned itself with the West on the Syrian uprising, thereby alienating Iran. Now, Baydar says Turkey could use some diplomatic breathing room.

"It will be a very shaky summer. Everything really depends on what is going to happen in these coming months until November, until the American election," he says.

Turkey Pledges To Cut Iranian Oil Imports

At the recent "Friends of Syria" meeting in Istanbul, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warmly praised Turkey for pledging to cut its imports of Iranian oil, following in the footsteps of several EU countries. Not coincidentally, the Iranian media has been full of stories about skyrocketing gas prices harming EU economies.

Turkish motorists already live with some of the highest gas prices in the world, and Turkey will look to Libya to make up any reduction in Iranian imports.

Other problems between Turkey and Iran exist, notably Turkey's basing of a NATO missile defense radar on its soil. Analyst Soli Ozel at Kadir Has University says Iran is upset, but may not be ready to cut ties with Turkey completely.

"Turkish-Iranian relations are defined by a contradictory duet of competition and cooperation. But it is also a fact that the Iranians would probably need Turkey's good offices," he says.

Ozel says Turkey could act as a neutral interlocutor on the nuclear issue, if the current chill in relations with Tehran passes. If it doesn't, the big risk for Ankara remains energy. Ozel says if you add Iran's ally Russia into the equation, Turkey gets about 80 percent of its gas and more than half of its oil from Iran and Russia. And that, he says, should reassure Iran that Turkey isn't about to do something rash like send troops into Syria.

"You really cannot do something unilaterally in Syria, so long as Russia and Iran support the Syrian regime. Therefore we're in a very delicate position, and the Iranians do have 'accidents' in their pipelines at times," Ozel says, "and that obviously makes Turkey very vulnerable."

Analysts say that means Turkey will be the epitome of the gracious host Saturday, anxiously hoping that its guests manage to get along.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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