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Turkey Treads Fine Line as Mediator in Iran Nuclear Issue

Turkey is willing to serve as the venue for an exchange of Iranian nuclear fuel, in a bid to ease tension between the West and Iran over its nuclear program. But questions are beginning to surface as to which side of the fence Turkey will be on when it comes to any showdown with Iran.

The Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu's visit this week to Tehran is just the latest initiative by Turkey to resolve the deepening crisis over Iran's nuclear energy program.

At a press conference Sunday during a visit to Qatar, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed again that Turkey was ready to play a key role.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has said Turkey could serve as the center for the exchange of Iranian uranium, he says. If Turkey is chosen, he says, it will do what it is asked to do.

In its efforts to contain Iran's nuclear program, the West has pushed the proposal by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, for Iran to ship its low-enriched uranium abroad. There it would be refined and returned for use in Tehran's medical research reactor.

Although Iran has said it is ready "in principle" to sign on to the proposal, a venue for the exchange has yet to be agreed and Iran has insisted that not all its low-enriched uranium be shipped out in one go. Tensions mounted last week when Iran announced that it has started the process of producing 20 percent enriched uranium, defying Western threats of fresh sanctions.

Prime Minister Erdogan has long been an advocate of a negotiated settlement. He has openly opposed any use of force against his Iranian neighbors, arguing that economic sanctions or military action against Iran would have a damaging impact on the whole region.

Political scientist Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Bilgi University says Turkey has very good reasons for its dovish approach. "Ankara is very concerned about Iran going nuclear, but it is also as concerned about Iran being attacked by United States. I mean I guess you agree we could ill afford to have yet another war in the region in the neighborhood," he said.

The two U.S.-led wars against Iraq economically devastated Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, which borders Iraq. That devastation served as a recruiting agent for the Kurdish rebel group the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state for greater Kurdish rights for the past 25 years.

Tehran is now cooperating with Ankara on both a military and intelligence level, in its fight against the PKK.

"It's not only governmental policy to have good relations. It was also the concern of the Turkish military especially concerning the PKK," said Political columnist Nuray Mert. "The Turkish army made it very clear Turkey does not want any kind of confrontation with Iran."

Observers say the Turkish government's Islamic roots are also seen as a driving force behind its efforts to avoid confrontation over Iran.

Prime Minister Erdogan has built a close relationship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was one of the first leaders to congratulate the Iranian president on his controversial election victory last year.

The two countries also share deepening economic ties.

Earlier this month, Turkey signed a five-year, multibillion dollar deal with Iran to modernize its oil-and-gas industry.

Political columnist Nuray Mert says as a result of the increase in economic ties between the two countries, Turkey may become less reliable in backing any new international sanctions against Tehran. "I was inclined to think that, at the end of the day, Turkey will join the club when it comes to realization of these sanctions because its inevitable," he said.

"But nowadays I can see the government is planning to avoid these sanctions. Because we've signed a lot of economic agreements with Iran. So I mean its quite contradictory actually just on the eve of implementing sanctions. Now we have Turkey signing a lot of economic agreements against the policy of sanctions," he added.

If Ankara's attempts, along with other international efforts, fail to resolve the crisis over Iran, then it faces the tough choice of having to choose between its historical allies of Europe and the U.S. or its new found friends in Tehran.