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November 12, 2008

Anatolian Navel Gazing
Posted by Patrick Barry

Some good news out of Turkey today - Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has offered to act as a mediator between the Iran's leadership and the incoming Obama administration.  It's anybody's guess what the Obama people will do with the offer, but it's an important gesture that's worth recognizing:

Turkey wants to be the mediator between the new Obama administration and Iran, using its growing role in the Middle East to bridge the divide between East and West, said Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erodogan.

Something which the Times piece does a decent job of drawing out is that Turkey is pretty well positoned for this sort of thing, and not just in the U.S.-Iran context either.  In fact, as Middle East interlocutors go, it's tough to do better:

Turkey argues that it is uniquely positioned to facilitate talks between Washington and Tehran. It is a NATO member, and it secured a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council last month. It is a Muslim country that has renewed relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors in recent years, achieving a breakthrough in May by bringing Israel and Syria together for talks for the first time in years.

Add to this list Turkey's pursuit of EU accession, their friendly relations with Israel, and a government that commands respect from Muslims across the Middle East, and the Turks start to sound like good friends to have in a pinch. 

Turkey talk also gets to a larger issue, which is that If you take the view that America's problems in the Middle East - from Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons to the future of Iraq to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan - are too big to address bilaterally, country by country, then there must an initative that draws in all vested parties to get everyone to exercise convergent pressure on the challenge at hand.  This in turn means getting cooperation from enemies, consent from allies, and coordination from parties with nothing in common.  No easy task either.  In a situation like that, it's helpful to have the support of countries that can act as bridgers, countries that can reconcile the divisions that would otherwise cause the whole operation to unravel.

This leads us back to Turkey.  A bajillion years ago, back when there were Byzantines, they called Istanbul the navel of the world, a metaphor which is at once gross but also useful for understanding Turkey's traditional role as a node for East-West activity.  For centuries, Turkey has managed to fuse together cultures that to everyone else appared irreconcilable.  Today, for reasons political and economic, cultural and strategic, they seem willing to take on that part again.

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