Iranian Ambassador to Turkey Alireza Bikdeli has opposed the idea of delivering Turkmen gas to Turkey through the Caspian Sea, adding that if Turkey wants to do serious business, it should do it with Iran.
“Until today, there has not been any example of the transfer of natural gas though the Caspian Sea. There are some problems in the Caspian Sea region, and these problems prevent the occurrence of business there. Turkey is also discussing the issue with us. If you want to do serious business, this business should be done though Iran,” Bikdeli said.
Turkey and Turkmenistan revived hopes for a long-term plan with regards to the delivery of Turkmen gas to Turkey after signing a cooperation agreement during President Abdullah Gül's high-level official visit to the country in early June.
“The more this issue is taken seriously, the more the talks with Iran can gain importance. Iran has several natural gas pipeline networks that compensate for the energy needs of its neighbors,” Bikdeli added.
Bikdeli also opposed the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan [BTC] pipeline when he was an ambassador in Baku in 1997, arguing that the cheapest and shortest route for the pipeline is through Iran from the Persian Gulf. "We have the necessary infrastructure," Bikdeli said at that time. ``They would only need to build 200 kilometers [120 miles] of new lines.''
In an exclusive interview with Today's Zaman, Bikdeli touched on several issues concerning the region and bilateral relations between Turkey and Iran.
Rohani's leadership provides opportunities for Turkey-Iran relations
Hassan Rohani won Iran's presidential election on June 15, scoring a surprising landslide victory over conservative hardliners without the need for a second-round runoff.
Bikdeli believes that the election of Rohani will have a significant impact on the country's relations with Turkey and that Rohani's leadership seeks to promote constructive interaction with neighbors.
“The countries that have interest in relations with Iran should seize the opportunity provided by this new era. Iran's new government will also consider this opportunity,” Bikdeli said.
Rohani is known for his nuanced, conciliatory and reformist political approach. Soon after his election, Rohani announced that his country will have friendly relations with all its neighbors in the region.
“Turkey is not just a neighbor, but a brother country for us. We believe that the futures of Turkey and Iran are connected to each other. New opportunities will emerge in the future if efforts to develop bilateral relations between the two countries increase. Those that want to develop bilateral relations must make themselves ready for this new era,” Bikdeli said.
Turkey congratulated Rohani on his victory and stated that it will continue to maintain neighborly relations with the new government in Iran on the basis of mutual benefit and common interest.
Turkey and Iran have improved their ties in recent years, but conflicting policies regarding the more than two-year-long Syrian crisis have strained relations since last year. Turkey is one of the staunchest supporters of opposition forces that are trying to topple embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Iran has stood by its ally Syria -- one of Iran's last Shiite allies in the region -- despite growing international pressure on Assad.
A series of unusually sharp statements last year from both Turkey and Iran have brought relations between the two neighbors -- which had been improving until recently, even at the expense of angering Turkey's NATO ally, the US -- to what one could call a historic low.
However, Bikdeli does not agree that the Iranian side has made harsh statements against Turkey: “On the contrary, friendly relations between Iran and Turkey would help find a solution to the Syrian crisis. We believe that Turkey can play a key role in establishing peace in Syria. We believe that the restoring of ties between Ankara and Damascus may be the basis for solving the problems of the Syrian people -- and the friendship between Turkey and Iran can help make this happen.”
The ambassador maintained that the Syrian issue should not be considered the problem of a single country, but rather it should be considered a regional and international issue. “If we fail to make an accurate evaluation of the problem, then we will fail to find a solution to the issue,” Bikdeli stated.
Hezbollah could play a role in solving Syrian crisis
When asked his assessment of the criticisms of Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah's involvement with the conflict in Syria, Bikdeli glossed over the question, stressing that Hezbollah was a respected organization in the region and that the Shiite group could play a role in solving the regional issues. Bikdeli was vague about what that role would be, saying that once the Syrian issue is considered a regional and international issue, then the solution would definitely include regional and international actors. “An organization which has close ties with Syria and has played a major role in the developments in Lebanon needs to be considered when looking for a solution for the crisis in Syria,” Bikdeli explained.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ has directed harsh criticism at Hezbollah for stepping up a campaign of violence against civilians in Syria and said the group should change its name to “Hezb al-Shaitan” (the Party of Satan). Hezbollah means the “Party of God.”
Friends of Syria nations, including Turkey, recently called for an immediate withdrawal of fighters belonging to Hezbollah and Iran from Syria. However, Iran consistently denies that it has had forces in Syria supporting Assad. Recently, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani advised Turkey not to level false accusations against Iran and Hezbollah over the situation in Syria.
When asked why Iran disagrees with a transitional government in Syria without Assad, Bikdeli remarked that it is not Iran but the Syrian people who will decide the fate of Assad: “We certainly have no business with Assad. We believe that the future of Syria should be determined by the Syrian people. We don't have the right to make a decision over this issue. But it seems like some countries have been granted the right to decide on the fate of Assad and the future of Syria. Any intervention would definitely face an intervention in return.”
The ambassador also reiterated that Iran is against any kind of external intervention in Syria's internal affairs. “On the other hand, there is no military solution for Syria. This issue has only two sides, and these two sides should take steps toward the solution of the crisis with mutual dialogue,” Bikdeli asserted.
Bikdeli refused to answer a question on his prediction of the percentage of support Assad receives in Syria, but he instead posed a question: “What is the support the opposition receives in Syria?” He stated that the percentage of the support to Assad would be clear at the ballot box and pledged that Tehran would support any leader elected by the will of the Syrian people.
When asked if Tehran would continue to support Assad if he stays in power until the 2014 presidential elections, Bikdeli responded that real support is given to Assad by his own people, not by Iran.
“Are friendly relations between Iran and Syria illegal? Is humanitarian support of Iran to the Syrian people illegal? I have to say, clearly, that supporting terrorism in Syria is definitely not legal!”
Participation of Iran in Geneva II would be opportunity for all sides
The Iranian ambassador asserted that Iran would definitely like to participate in any political initiative that aims to bring the opposition and regime together for the solution of the crisis, including the planned US-Russia-led peace conference for Syria.
The conference, dubbed Geneva II in reference to a similar meeting held last year, is expected to bring together the Syrian regime and opposition. The conference is expected to take place in early July.
“The participation of Iran in Geneva II would be a great opportunity for the two sides -- the regime and the opposition,” Bikdeli said.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi had announced that he was cutting off diplomatic relations with Syria and closing Damascus' embassy in Cairo.
When asked whether Iran feels isolated in the region due to its support to the Syrian regime, Bikdeli replied that whatever country aims to isolate Iran, it will itself become isolated in the end.
“The ones that know the geopolitics in the region well are aware that it is impossible to isolate Iran. Additionally, Iran has deep relations with countries in the region,” he added.
Confronted with claims that Iran is pursuing a sectarian policy in Iraq by excluding some Shiite and Sunni groups, Bikdeli expressed that Iran, a Shiite country, is against any sectarian conflict in the region.
Baghdad, which has close ties to Assad's ally Iran, is also hesitant to take a stance on the Syrian conflict.
“It is very obvious who would benefit from sectarian conflicts. Sectarian conflict is a tool in the hands of our enemies to prevent Islamic union. It is very clear that the people of Turkey, Iran and Syria would suffer from sectarian violence. Iran has supported the Muslims in various parts of the world and will continue to support them. Now, one should ask: Why is Iran supporting Syria today?” Bikdeli put forth.
He maintained that those who accuse Iran of pursuing sectarian policies are Islamophobic and fear an Islamic awakening in the world.
Stating that the current developments in the region are part of the Islamic awakening process, Bikdeli added that the countries that exploited Muslims countries for decades are against the changes taking place in the region.
“Muslims want to get back their rights, which were abused by colonialist states. However, these colonialist states have two aims. First, they want Muslim countries to deal with their own internal problems. Second, they want to create sectarian conflict among Muslim countries,” Bikdeli remarked.
Turkey should coordinate with Iran over PKK
In mid-May, Iran declared its support of Turkey's settlement process launched by the Turkish government in a bid to resolve the country's long-standing terrorism problem.
“Iran would support any initiative that would strengthen Turkey's security and stability. This situation would definitely serve our interests as well. Although, we do not have enough information over the process, based on the information we have received, we hope this process will reach the point it is aiming for,” Bikdeli said.
Iran, which has clashed with the Iranian wing of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the past, has so far mostly refrained from commenting on Turkey's settlement process. But the Milliyet daily reported in late April that a senior Iranian diplomat had expressed his country's concern about the withdrawal.
PKK terrorists are expected to return to their respective countries within the scope of the settlement process. However, the diplomat reportedly said that Iran will not allow PKK terrorists of Iranian origin to come back to their country.
When asked how he would feel about PKK terrorists coming to Iran and Iraq as a part of the settlement process, Bikdeli responded that Turkey should definitely be in coordination with the two countries if there are any steps that would involve Tehran and Baghdad.
Turkish police have arrested, among others, an Iranian national named Shayan Shamloo in connection with violent demonstrations in the Turkish capital that followed what was initially a peaceful environmental protest in Gezi Park in İstanbul.
Touching on the detainment of Iranian citizens during the Gezi protests, Bikdeli stated that Iran has informed its citizens in Turkey to stay away from the ongoing protests that have spread to other provinces in the country and turned into anti-government demonstrations.
“We sent a diplomatic note to the Turkish Foreign Ministry requesting information. Besides that, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has clearly said that the protests are Turkey's internal issue and Iran would never interfere. We believe that the Turkish government and people will take the necessary steps to solve the issue. There is no connection between Iran's foreign policy and these protests,” Bikdeli maintained.
Bikdeli downplayed claims that Iranian companies in Turkey are serving other purposes outside of business -- such as sending arms to Yemen through Turkish land -- saying that some circles are trying to strain ties between Iran and Turkey with such claims.
“I believe that a country like Yemen does not need arms from Iranians. We consider such claims to be an attempt to deteriorate the extensive cooperation between Turkey and Iran,” Bikdeli remarked.
An unexpected number of Iranian-financed firms set up shop in Turkey in January, a development that has led to concerns in Ankara that potentially illegal activities by those Iranian companies will lead to an unwanted confrontation between Turkey and its Western allies -- due to US and EU-imposed sanctions as well as several UN Security Council resolutions against Tehran.
“Some circles are discomforted over the growing economic cooperation between the private sectors of our two countries. This growing cooperation has enabled the numbers of Iranian companies in Turkey and Turkish companies in Iran to increase. These circles are against the developing of relations; therefore, they accuse Iranian companies in Turkey [of suspicious behavior]. Indeed, these circles will make our work more difficult,” Bikdeli said.
Bikdeli said that their main aim is to make Turkey Iran's first partner when it comes to the economy. “We would do our utmost for this goal,” he added.
Bikdeli didn't deny claims that Turkish companies in Iran are facing strong bureaucratic obstacles and said that his country is pursuing a policy in line with solving the problems faced by these companies. “There are many Turkish companies in Iran that make a great profit. We want to ensure that these companies make enough of a profit. Iran is the most profitable partner for Turkey in the field of trade,” Bikdeli stressed.