23.02.2005. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Saltanov: Turkey, Russia can help reduce Mideast tension, Turkish Daily News

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Saltanov reiterates that Moscow's technical military cooperation with Syria and peaceful nuclear collaboration with Iran are not a breach of its international obligations

ELIF UNAL ARSLAN

Ankara - Turkish Daily News, 23.02.05

Turkey and neighboring Russia could take up a joint initiative in order to help soothe growing tensions in the region over mounting U.S. pressure on Iran and Syria, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov said yesterday.

Washington is pushing Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and curb militant groups crossing from Syrian territory into Iraq. The White House is also putting pressure on Tehran by accusing it of supporting terrorism and trying to develop nuclear weapons. Syria and Iran, in response, announced last week that they had formed a common front to fight any threat against them.

Sultanov, who is responsible for Middle East issues, was in Ankara at the start of the week to discuss a number of issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, post-election developments in Iraq and strained ties between Iran, Syria and the United States.

Turkish-Russian bilateral relations gained momentum after Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Turkey in December, when both sides pledged to broaden cooperation in the political and economic fields. Saltanov said his own talks demonstrated that both countries shared common views and could work together for peace in the region.

Advantage of having good relations: "We believe Turkey and Russia can make a significant contribution to resolving disagreements and to stabilizing the region as Ankara and Moscow maintain good relations with Iran and Syria on the one hand and with the United States on the other," Saltanov told the Turkish Daily News in an exclusive interview prior to his departure from Ankara.

"We said we are ready to provide crucial input together with Turkey, or in parallel, in order to prevent negative developments in the Middle East and to enhance the positive ones," the visiting deputy minister added. He declined to elaborate further.

As part of regular contact between Ankara and Moscow, Saltanov met with Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Ali Tuygan and Turkey's special envoy for Iraq, Osman Koruturk, along with other ministry officials. A second round of talks is scheduled to take place in Moscow later this year.

The deputy minister said Russia and Turkey advocated dialogue for resolving regional disputes, "The best way to remove concerns and suspicions of some [countries] is dialogue. We believe that those concerns could be eased through [improved] communication."

Russian cooperation with Syria and Iran: Last week's news reports said Russia would go ahead with its plans to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Syria and to assist Iran in erecting a nuclear power plant, 1 both of which may add to existing: tensions in the region. Iran says it wants to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes but some suspect that Tehran will, in the end, possess nuclear weapons.

Saltanov defended Russia's cooperation with Damascus and Tehran and gave reassurances that Moscow was abiding by the international agreement that bans, the spreading of weapons of mass destruction. "Our technical military cooperation with Syria and peaceful nuclear cooperation with Iran are entirely compatible with Russia's international obligations," he said. " We have avoided and will continue to avoid any action that would amount to a breach of the [nuclear] Non-proliferation o'Treaty", he stressed.

Post-election Iraq: Another topic at the top of Saltanov's meeting agenda was post-election developments in Iraq. The Russian deputy minister said he and his Turkish counterpart have agreed that all Iraqi groups should. actively take part in restructuring the filature of the country. "The most important part of stopping Iraq from falling apart is improving the dialogue among the groups there. Only then can a national consensus be reached," he said in, apparent reference to the major grouping of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq.

He explained that all components of society should take part in the new administration, in drawing up the new constitution and finally holding a referendum on it. Saltanov's remarks did not sound too far from Ankara's stance on the disputed northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Turkey repeatedly issued strong warnings that the oil-rich city should not fall under the control of a single group namely the Kurds. "Within the framework of the new political process in Iraq, we believe that a solution can be found in line with the whole of the country," he said.

But when it comes to the results of last month's Iraqi national and provincial elections, Moscow thinks differently from Ankara. "First of all, we look at what the Iraqi people's own assessment of' elections was, on whether they think it was fair and free.... In any case, the elections were held, and everybody accepts this. What is important is the contribution of the election results in bringing further stability to the country," said Sultanov. Turkey believes that voter turnout in some regions was low, including the ethnically mixed Iraqi city of Kirkuk, and wants Iraqi electoral officials and the United Nations to examine what it has claimed were skewed election results.