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Turkey, Iran Wary Of U.S. Terms For Fight Against Islamic State


The militant group that calls itself the Islamic State has taken over parts of Iraq and Syria and is of special interest to some neighboring nations. Turkey and Iran both have borders right up against the territory where Sunni extremists have been fighting. Secretary of State John Kerry is in the Middle East this week trying to assemble a coalition to fight the militants. But neither Turkey nor Iran is likely to sign on with the United States - at least not in public. At a meeting Kerry called yesterday in Saudi Arabia, Turkey was aloof and Iran was absent. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that each country has its own reasons to be wary.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Secretary of State John Kerry downplayed Turkey's failure to sign the communique in Saudi Arabia supporting a coordinated military campaign against the Islamic State, saying Ankara has its own sensitivities. One sensitivity is obvious - the capture in June of some 49 Turkish diplomats and family members in Northern Iraq. Soli Ozel, who teaches international relations at Kadir Has University, says any early opportunity to free those hostages seems to have passed.

SOLI OZEL: As time goes by, there must be less and less incentive because there's going to be now a counter-reaction. And these hostages may prove to be a very important asset for them.

KENYON: But beyond the hostage crisis, Turkey's interests very much align with those of its NATO allies. Soner Cagaptay at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says Ankara has had a rude awakening to the threat posed by the Sunni extremists who once transited Turkey freely on their way to fight the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey has long been concerned with the security of its Iraqi and Syrian borders because of a different threat from Kurdish separatists. But the Islamic State, says Cagaptay, makes the Kurdish threat pale in comparison.

SONER CAGAPTAY: I would say it's as existential a threat to Turkey probably since the beginning of the Cold War, since Stalin asked for Turkish territory in 1946. That decision pivoted the Turks to join NATO which really built Turkey's strong ties with the West.

KENYON: If Stalin pushed Turkey into NATO's arms, the Islamic State threat may well do so even further. Today, Cagaptay says, given the choice between an autonomous Kurdish enclave across its border or the Islamic State's so-called caliphate, Turkey would take the Kurds in a heartbeat. Iran is another neighbor watching the battle in Iraq get closer to its border. On the ground, Tehran's intentions are clear. During the recent military operation to liberate the Iraqi village of Amerli, it was Iranian-backed Shiite militias who did much of the ground fighting while U.S. aircraft struck from above. But if Iran and Washington share a common enemy, open cooperation seems still out of reach. Ali Ansari, professor of Iranian history at St. Andrews University in Scotland, says you only have to read the endless stream of stories in Shiite Iran's State media describing the Sunni Islamic State as a creation of Washington, Israel or Saudi Arabia.

ALI ANSARI: This is a line that has been sold very heavily in Iran. It's one that many of the leadership, of course, believe. And, of course, there has been an incoherence in Western policy. Let's not have an illusions about that. We could say the environment is ripe for such conspiracy theories to emerge. I mean, that's the problem.

KENYON: It's also politically convenient for Iranian leaders to blame the Islamic State on Washington, says Ansari, because it distracts attention from the fact that the rise of the Islamic State is also an embarrassing failure for Iranian policy.

ANSARI: I mean, the Iranians basically thought that Iraq was in the bag. It was a allied if not client state. And all of a sudden they find that their own backyard is falling apart - and not only that, with a group that is deeply, deeply antithetical to Shiism. In a sense, they were caught napping in Iraq.

KENYON: For now, both Tehran and Ankara appear to be adopting a bifurcated, if not schizophrenic, approach to the Islamic State crisis - public denunciation of any collaboration with the U.S. while de facto cooperation of varying degrees continues on the ground. How long that awkward posture can be maintained may depend on how well the battle goes. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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