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Turkey opts for Ahmadinejad

While EU foreign ministers expressed serious concerns and called for an inquiry into the election, Turkish President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did not wait long to congratulate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who claimed victory in his country’s recent polls. Both Turkish leaders called Ahmadinejad separately on Sunday, as his rivals were challenging the election results.

This apparently stems from the fact that:

First, prior to the Iranian elections, Ankara predicted a victory for Ahmadinejad over his rival Mir Hossein Mousavi; and

Second, although there have been irregularities, the prevailing view holds that allegations of serious fraud to the point of stealing the elections from Mousavi, as his supporters claim, are exaggerated.

Although Western countries had hopes that the advent of a moderate leader might have opened the way for reconciliation, some Turkish decision-makers are of the view that Ahmadinejad’s victory is not bad news. To the contrary, officials familiar with Iran believe that normalization of relations between Iran and the West can be achieved more easily with Ahmadinejad than Mousavi.

"Had Mousavi come to the government, his job would have been very difficult. The conservative, anti-American mullahs would have tied his hands and made it very tough for him to engage in dialogue with the United States," said one official, who asked to remain anonymous. The same official reminded me that the main supporters of Mousavi, who formed the camp of moderates for former presidents Hashimi Rafsancani and Mohammad Khatami, ruled the country in the past, but failed to bring about change, adding, "Those who thought that Mousavi would have changed Iran’s nuclear policy are mistaken."

Ahmadinejad, a better interlocutor

Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, has strengthened his hand after the election, which will make it easier for him to challenge the radical clerics in case he needs to. It is no secret that Ahmadinejad has the backing of radical clerics, including the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamanei. But he is less radical, and more open to reconciliation and dialogue, than his supporters, some Turkish experts say.

In fact, according to one expert, the influence of the religious cleric is gradually eroding as Ahmadinejad takes steps to make Iranian politics more influenced by civilians, including, apparently, replacing some religious officials with civilians in certain administrative posts. Ahmadinejad has made many trips to Iran’s rural areas, prompting others to go there as well. No wonder he has done so well in rural districts. Obviously, one cannot ignore the picture that came out during the election campaign, as well as in the aftermath of the elections. A good chunk of Iranian society is not happy with the country they live in. They want change. Ahmadinejad might then take the course of action of Armenian President Serge Sarkissian, who was believed to be a hawk compared to his rival Levon Ter Petrossian, who mounted a serious challenge. Instead of ignoring this, Sarkissian, once elected, absorbed the message of those who voted for Ter Petrossian and defied expectations by taking a more moderate line on relations with Turkey.

Furthermore, Ahmadinejad might also realize that he can no longer continue his populist economic policies based on distributing money to the poor without generating wealth, which was only possible with high oil revenues. With the current low oil prices, the Iranian economy might hit the wall, prompting the president to look for a way out of his country’s isolation.

As far as Turkish-Iranian relations are concerned, the Turkish government seems content to have Ahmadinejad at the head of the Iranian government. Ahmedinejad is said to enjoy excellent relations with both President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan. In fact, he is known to be an admirer of Erdoğan, especially of his style - perhaps even more so after Erdoğan walked off the stage during a meeting in Davos at which he had a harsh exchange of words with Israeli President Shimon Peres. But personal issues aside, Turkish officials believe the two countries enjoyed good relations during Ahmadinejad’s first term in office.