ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Turkey's foreign minister has criticized Iran for its reaction to a NATO decision to deploy Patriot missiles on the border between Turkey and Syria. The NATO decision has added to tensions between Iran and Turkey, whose relations are already strained over the Syrian crisis.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Tuesday dismissed Iran's concerns about the decision by NATO to deploy batteries of the Patriot anti-missile defense system along Turkey’s border with Syria.
Speaking to reporters in Ankara, Davutoglu said that instead of criticizing the Patriot system, Iran should tell the Syrian government to halt its oppression against its own people, and provoking Turkey through border violations.
Tehran has strongly condemned the move, with the chief of Iran's armed forces warning the decision risks a Third World War. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad abruptly canceled a trip this week to attend a religious festival in Turkey.
The conflict in Syria has driven a wedge between the two countries, with Tehran strongly backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Ankara supporting the Syrian rebels.
But Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based research institute Edam, said Ankara now may be reaching out to its former ally, and that the Iranian president canceling his visit is seen as a missed opportunity.
"Turkey wanted to discuss the future of Syria with Iran because despite Iran’s support of Assad regime, there is still plenty of joint interest in seeing that in a post-Assad period potentially. Syria does not fall into this abyss of instability, so from that perspective, there are a number of joint interests," said Ulgen.
No official reason was given for Ahmadinejad's last-minute cancellation.
But the decision may have more to do with opposition within Iran to any potential cooperation between Ankara and Tehran in connection with Syria, according to Murat Bilhan.
Bilhan is a former Turkish diplomat to Iran and teaches international relations at Istanbul’s Kultur University.
"First of all, he might have some domestic reasons. Because there are interesting remarks by some of the military staff, the Revolutionary Guard, threatening Turkey, just at the time, almost simultaneously when the preparations and declarations that he would visit Turkey. The point is he must have some internal disputes, internal differences probably, he found pressure on him, not to go," said Bilhan.
Still, analysts say Ahmadinejad is seen as a person with whom Ankara can do business.
Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in the past described the Iranian leader as a friend, although relations between the two men have cooled since the conflict in Syria.
But analyst Ulgen warned that looming changes within Iran could work against any attempts by the Turkish government for diplomacy with Tehran on Syria.
"Presidential elections in Iran in 2013, the next president in Iran in likelihood will be somebody more aligned (with) the spiritual leader, a more conservative candidate and therefore the relationship that Turkey has been able to manage with Ahmadinejad in terms of talking to him about a number of different issues, ranging from the regional environment to the nuclear file, is unlikely to be replicated, at least in the short term with the new Iranian president."
However, relations are expected to be further strained with Ankara, which is under increasing pressure from Washington to adopt its tightening energy sanctions against Tehran over its controversial nuclear energy program.