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Turkey Defines New Role in Middle East Diplomacy

Turkish foreign minister Ali Babacan is in Tehran to help find a solution to the ongoing tensions over Iran's nuclear aspirations. Turkey is increasingly playing an active role in working to resolve tensions across the Middle East. Earlier this year it was revealed Ankara had mediated the Syrian-Israeli peace talks. Dorian Jones reports for VOA on Turkey's increasingly active diplomatic role in the region.

On the eve of crucial talks between Iran and the international community in Geneva earlier this month, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki visited Ankara, for talks with his Turkish counterpart Ali Babacan. The meeting centered on Iran's nuclear program, and international fears Tehran is seeking to build a nuclear bomb, a charge Iran denies.

As the crisis continues, Turkey has stepped up its role in helping to resolve the tensions. Speaking after meeting with his counterpart, Mottaki thanked Turkey.

He said we are in continuous discussions and Turkey has always followed Iran's nuclear activities. He thanked Turkey for its constructive attitude to Iran's nuclear activities.

Babacan in the past month has been talking with officials in Iran and the United States as well as representatives from the six countries negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. For Babacan, trust and clarity are key to resolving the crisis.

What is important is that parties should understand each other clearly, he said, adding he had the opportunity to learn the views and approach of both Iran and the group of the six countries. He said, this issue must be solved through dialogue.

While Turkey has been active in mediating crises around the Middle East, Babacan described his country's role as un-named.

Gokhan Cetinsaya of Istanbul Technical University, an expert on Turkish-Iranian relations and unofficial adviser to the foreign ministry, says it's key that Ankara is seen as a credible negotiator.

"I think in that sense Turkey is in a very unique position. Iran knows Turkey is also going to lose if there is going to be a war between Iran and United States. So Turkey is sincere in that sense. It's a unique role at this particular moment in the regional politics -- both Iran and Israel. Can you imagine? Maybe five years ago it was different," he said.

Five years ago was when the present Islamic-rooted Justice and development party, or AK party, came to power. The AK leadership, which has strong ties with many Middle Eastern rulers has, unlike its recent predecessors, chosen to be actively engaged in the region, according to Soli Ozel an international relations expert at Bilgi University.

"There is no question this government in particular pays serious attention to the Middle East wishes to make Turkey an important player in developments whether it be the Israeli-Syrian front, whether it be Iraq or Israeli-Palestine front," he said.

In Iraq Turkey played a pivotal role in persuading Sunni Iraqi leaders to participate in the 2005 general election, after a secret meeting in Istanbul. Turkish diplomatic sources also say Ankara recently helped to end an impasse in Lebanon between rival political parties over the presidential election.

But it's Ankara's role in brokering the start of indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel, which further defined their role in the region.

For the last few months, secret talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv have been held in Istanbul. The most recent was this week, and further talks are reported to be scheduled for mid-August. Soli Ozel explains Ankara's role.

"It's more than a messenger , and less than a mediator, I think the appropriate term to use is a facilitator. Obviously this shows all concerned parties, trust Turkey." he said.

Near and Middle Eastern countries have been deeply suspicious of the Turks, who once ruled them as part of the Ottoman Empire. But history appears to be giving way to growing concerns over Iran's nuclear program.

Experts say Turkey, for now at least, appears to be in the unique position as the region's only honest broker. Ankara's success has been built on the foundation of five years of political and economic stability at home. But Istanbul Technical University's Cetinsaya warns that those diplomatic gains can be easily lost.

"It is vulnerable, let's say, to economic crisis, political crisis, or change of actors," he said. "The actors are important in pursuing such a foreign policy . In that sense it's reversible in forthcoming months.

The ruling AK party this week narrowly escaped closure by the country's constitutional court after being convicted of undermining the secular state. With Ankara playing an increasingly active diplomatic role in the region, at a time of high political tension, experts say the repercussions of Turkey's internal strife could affect areas far beyond its borders.