In a recent exclusive interview with the Etemad daily newspaper, Reza Hakan Takin, the ambassador of Turkey to Iran, discussed a range of issues – from Turkey’s domestic problems after the coup attempt and the country’s relations with the European Union to Ankara’s cooperation with Iran and Russia in restoring peace to Syria.
He further touched upon Iran’s protest against the controversial dams his country is building on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which according to Iranian officials, will result in serious dust pollution across the region.
Hakan Takin also declared that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit Tehran before the end of this year.
Republican People’s Party has held nationwide rallies which President Erdogan sees as equal to sponsorship terrorism. Until when every peaceful protest in Turkey will make protesters terrorists, given the fact that the party seems to have a large number of advocates in the country?
We do not consider it that way. This is politics; sometimes politicians use strong rhetoric to score points. I do not want to delve into the domestic politics because this is not my responsibility. Our president may have said some strong words, which also of course reflect the expectations of his constituency, as some people in Turkey may think that way. But at the end of the day that activity you mentioned was done, from day one to the last day, without interruption and no legal process has been launched against it. So, we have to look at the bigger picture. We lived through a very traumatic experience last year, with the coup d’état attempt of this very brutal and secretive group, Fethullah Gülen terrorist organization, as we say FETO to them in a short way. So we are still feeling the aftershock of that coup, because it was a very bloody one, it was a very brutal one, and it was later found out that this is not a simple organization. It has put its tentacles in all levels of state, media, education, business structures. We have to be very careful not to live such an experience again.
More than a year has passed since the coup attempt in Turkey. Why have not the security and political situation been restored to normal?
We cannot say that the situation is not normal. Security-wise we are even in a much better situation in Turkey compared to last year. Thank God and we hope that it will continue like that. Of course, we’re still dealing with terrorist activity of PKK, and we are continuing our operations against ISIS cells in Turkey as well as some other terrorist groups. Fighting FETO has not stopped, of course that is a different type of organization, because they can conceal themselves very ably. So this is not an easy task. It’s not like you find a terrorist group, you bomb them, you kill them, or you capture them and put them in jail or you find their leaders in other sectors. This is a group that throughout many decades have blended their people in a lot of structures of the state. So that’s why we work in a very delicate way, we still almost every day find out new things about this group, their people. But we hope and we are confident that we will finish them off as soon as possible. Life in Turkey is not like that. Even just after the coup, I spent four days after the coup attempt in Turkey, I came back on the 20th, the coup attempt was on 15th, even the next day or two days after, life was returned to normal and this was after such a big thing happened in Turkey. We also have to appreciate, we should not always look from the dark perspective, I mean, we lived through a very dangerous experience, a bloody one, 250 of our citizens were killed, thousands were wounded, and we’re trying to recover from this.
People never give a government a permanent green card. Aren’t you concerned about a popular backlash in the face of the government’s security measures and crackdowns on the opposition?
You’re right. Even a very strong government or a party in a democracy who wins back-to-back mandates from its own people, throughout time, it is the law of nature I guess, people start to change their minds. If it’s explained well to the people, all these measures which have been taken, and that’s what our government is trying to do, then I think it will ensure more understanding to this end. And I think our people is aware of that. Yes, of course not everybody is fully in agreement with that. Some people may have real concerns about that, some people may feel that some groups have been treated wrongfully. But after all we are a state of law and there are various cases in the courts, so we hope that all these issues will be resolved in a just way, so that people could further acknowledge the legitimacy of all these measures.
Relations between Turkey and Europe are becoming more and more complicated and a meeting between President Erdogan and German Chancellor has failed to help. What is the real issue in these tensions? Turkey seems to be labeling every move by the Europeans as support for the coup, which does not look like a helpful approach.
The real thing, especially with regard to Europeans, is they’re not showing empathy towards us, on many issues we face, many problems we are trying to overcome. They are just looking in a more parochial way, more self-oriented way, without showing real understanding of what we are going through. We are not against criticism by Europeans or any others but we also want to be treated fairly. I think we did not receive a fair treatment from Europeans for many years. I’m not only speaking about last year, after the coup attempt, I mean our relationship with the European Union goes back to 1963, our association agreement. And in 54 years, we have been trying to be a full member, and when you look at some countries which are weaker than Turkey in terms of meeting the criteria of EU membership, they were quickly taken in, in a few years. So of course this unfair attitude towards Turkey has created some sort of alienation from the Turkish public towards the EU. Because if you don’t want us, then we don’t want you too. Besides, things have changed, I mean, maybe Turkey’s EU membership was more important for us 15, 20 years ago, when our economy was not that strong. But Turkey has made its progress without EU membership. So in my opinion, our membership to EU is more symbolic now, because we have always been, and traditionally, when you look at our history, even during the Ottoman period, our orientation has always been towards the West. And we believe that we are part of the West as well as part of the East. And we believe Europeans have missed a big opportunity by treating Turkey that way. Things might have been much different if they had made the right choices 10, 15 years ago but of course we cannot turn back the clock.
In Astana talks, Turkey, Iran, and Russia had played pivotal roles in the establishment of ceasefire. We have also recently seen Russia and the US agreeing on de-escalation zones in parts of southern Syria. How does Ankara view the agreement? Was Turkey informed about details of the US-Russia negotiations?
Well, when we first heard about that, we were of course surprised, because as you know in the Astana Process, there were four regions of ceasefire agreed upon and one of those regions was the region where Americans and Russians and Jordanians agreed. So this was within the Astana agreement. But somehow Russia and others opted to move outside of the Astana Process. We were informed but after the agreement was reached. And both I think Iran and Turkey were upset about this. Not that we are against working with the United States and Jordan. They’re already within Astana Process anyway, I mean, as observers. So we did not understand why it was done this way but of course some other factors may have played a role. However, the more important thing is any agreement which brings peace, stability, is welcome for us. So if this agreement brings some positive elements to the situation in Syria, then we will not be against that just because we were left out of it.
Did Turkey receive any explanation from Russia regarding this deal?
Of course. Not only from Russians but also from Americans. We had talks about that. This is not a secret, it has also been in the international press; Americans and Jordanians were not very willing to have this Astana format of three countries, especially maybe due to Iran’s presence, to have a role in that part of the country, to have a role of guarantor for such an agreement. So, that was it seems the main reason why they took this approach.
President Rouhani has called recent dam building in Turkey one of the factors behind desertification in Iran and Turkish officials have denied this. What talks are underway between Tehran and Ankara in this regard?
Well, I wish we had some talks. As in all problems, like we mentioned since the start of this interview, we’re always for dialogue even on issues that we don’t agree on. But on this issue, especially in the recent period, what we have been seeing is a barrage of blames, accusations from Iran, even at the highest level, towards us on this problem which we believe do not reflect the scientific background of the issue. And we have always talked about it; let’s get together at expert level meetings and exchange our data and see if we can reach a common ground because this is not something like a political issue. You know in politics, you may not agree, but this is sand and dust storms, the effect of the dams, waters and so on so forth, desertification or the weather patterns, these are all scientific things. So if we can sit down and analyze all these data, normally we should reach a common conclusion. I have spoken with Vice-President Madame Ebtekar on this issue, twice in the last two years, and also some other people in her department, as well as with the foreign ministry. We said we can have this dialogue, we have an MOU on the cooperation on environment which was signed during our president’s visit in April 2015. And a year after that, in April 2016, with a view to implementing putting this MOU in action and we developed a draft plan of action and presented it to Iranian authorities. We still did not get a response to our draft though more than a year has passed. Apart from that, in all our meetings I mentioned and also during the conference held in Tehran earlier this month, we repeated our offers of dialogue. We said let’s get together, first maybe at expert level, and then we can meet at a higher level, so that rather than making these public remarks, which we believe I emphasize, do not reflect the reality of the situation, we should enter into dialogue. This is not a simple issue of dam building, they are not the reasons of all these sand and dust storms. Furthermore every country has its own responsibility in this field and we also have to look at all that … The dams built on Tigris and Euphrates had minimal effect on this change of pattern in these terrains, according to the scientific data we have compiled from both our national institutions as well as international institutions. So, we are for dialogue and we hope that we could do that, but the ball is on the court of the Iranian side on this issue.
Do you have any plans for the Iran-Turkey Strategic Supreme Council to meet in Tehran, at a presidential level?
We have this mechanism called High-level Cooperation Council – that is the full name of it – chaired by the presidents of the two countries. This council usually convenes during presidential visits. So we did it three times so far, two visits of Dr. Rouhani to Turkey and one visit of Erdogan to Tehran. Now it’s our turn in the presidential visit, and we hope to do it this year. It was not possible to do it earlier due to political developments both in Turkey and Iran; we had a referendum, there were elections in Iran. We hope that we can do this important visit before the end of this year. There is a willingness from both sides in this respect. I think maybe after the inauguration of Dr. Rouhani’s second term, with the establishment of the new government in Iran, the process may gain momentum. We should also convene our Joint Economic Council, to pave the ground for this presidential visit and the next session of the High-level Cooperation Council. I hope that we will be able to do all these visits and meetings before the end of this year.