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Turkey Tries to Walk Line Between West, Iran

Turkey appears to be taking a different stance than its European and U.S. allies in the wake of Iran's elections. The Turkish president and prime minister were among the first of the few countries to congratulate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his disputed victory. Questions are being raised in Turkey about whether it is becoming out of step with its western allies over Iran.

Turkey's U.S. and European allies are voicing increasing criticism of the Iranian presidential election and crackdown by its security forces on demonstrators. But Ankara has remained silent since Turkish President Abdullah Gul sent a congratulatory message to his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu refused to criticize the crackdown.

He says Turkey's government believes the problems in Iran will be solved by its inner mechanisms, with the best possible result. He says Turkey hopes Iran's dynamic and well-attended presidential election will not be overshadowed by the recent developments.

Working to improve relations

Foreign Minster Davutoglu advocates Turkey working to improve its relations with all its neighbors, including Iran.

Last year while the rest of the Europe was giving the Iranian president the cold shoulder, President Gul hosted Mr. Ahmadinejad in Istanbul. And despite U.S. criticism, Turkey is increasingly eyeing Iran as an alternative to Russia for its energy supplies.

But Turkish journalist Akif Emre says the ruling Islamic AK Party's Iran policy does not mean it is rejecting its Western allies.

"Turkey's new policy is to [maintain a] stronger relationship with the West, and also open a new area from Africa to the Middle East and neighbors," Emre said.

That policy has seen Turkey's government courting controversial groups like Hamas and Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for genocide by the International court.

Impossible balancing act

But International relations expert Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul's Bachesehir University, says trying to have close ties with Iran and the West is an impossible balancing act.

"One cannot have double or triple-track policies when it comes to international matters, because what is happening in Iran is a matter of democracy," Aktar said. "So once again. like in Sudan. the government is in total contradiction with its allies."

Turks do not support Ahmadinejad

On the streets of Istanbul there appears little support for Mr. Ahmadinejad or the Turkish government's stance toward his victory.

"It is their democratic rights they want Mousevi, but Ahmadinejad supporters manipulated votes so their rights were stolen," one person said. "I think people are right to defend their rights so I support them."

"I do not think the Turkish government has had a good point ... with Iran, because starting from our own country we should be promoting liberty more than anything else," said another bystander.

Is policy effective?

Foreign Minister Davutoglu says Turkey's non-confrontational stance toward Mr. Ahmadinejad puts it in an ideal position to defuse tension between Iran and the West, especially over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

But Professor Aktar says the Turkish foreign minister overestimates his country's importance.

"He might have this in mind becoming a kind of go between in the new and hypothetical relationship that is expected between Iran and the West," Aktar said. "But unfortunately, neither the West nor Iran needs Turkey for this sort of thing."

Iran has repeatedly rejected Turkey's offer to mediate with the United States. And with the Iranian leadership taking an increasingly tough stance towards its election protesters, Ankara could find itself in a difficult position.

Calls are growing from inside Iran and among Turkey's allies for tougher sanctions against Tehran. Columnist Emre says such a move would be hard for Ankara.

"Turkey first of all would try to keep balance," Emre said. "But if the European Union and American state they develop new policy against Iranian regime they will act with the Western bloc."

Iran's president has upped his rhetoric against the West, while reports continue to grow of an increasing crackdown on Iran's election protesters, which analysts say is putting more pressure on Turkey's balancing act between the West and Iran.