Obama and Erdogan 248x88 AP.
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In a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Monday, US President Barack Obama called Turkey an "important player" in keeping Iran's nuclear energy program peaceful despite his recent criticism of the Western approach towards Teheran.
Speaking beside Obama at a White House press conference, Erdogan said that the two leaders discussed what could be done "jointly in the region with regard to nuclear programs."
He also stressed that "we stand ready as Turkey to do whatever we can do with respect to relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel and Syria."
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was quoted as telling the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Monday he had been told by French President Nicolas Sarkozy that Syria was ready to open direct talks if Israel was prepared to commit itself to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
According to media reports from the closed-door meeting, Netanyahu told Sarkozy that if indirect negotiations were to continue, he would prefer France to Turkey as a mediator.
Turkey helped hold indirect negotiations between the latter two countries before the Gaza war last winter, during which Syria called off talks and Turkey harshly criticized Israel.
US officials said they would like to see Turkey return to such a mediation role, though none is currently on the table, but indicated they understood Israeli discomfort with the idea given Turkey's rhetoric on Gaza.
Obama also praised Turkey for helping stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, and concluded his remarks, which followed a lengthy Oval Office meeting ahead of a working lunch, by calling Turkey "a great country" and Erdogan a personal friend.
It was the prime minister's first trip to the Obama White House, and the two leaders extended their tete-a-tete to review an "enormous agenda" of issues, as one US official put it.
The meeting came amid growing disagreements between Washington and Ankara over a slew of policies, notably Iran and Israel.
The Obama administration has largely chosen publicly to emphasize places of agreement and stress Turkey's important regional role, but US officials have also subtly acknowledged differences and areas where they would like to see more being done.
A senior administration official briefing reporters ahead of Monday's meeting noted that America was "disappointed" with Turkey's decision to abstain on an International Atomic Energy Agency rebuke of Iran last month, and indicated that Turkey faced an important choice over whether to be helpful on sanctions.
"The President will make clear our views on Iran, and will strongly encourage Turkey to join us," he said. "We want the widest possible support for any potential sanctions, as it's necessary to go in that direction, so Turkey would be an important player on this issue."
Despite Turkey's dim view of sanctions on Iran, the official still stressed that "they also make it very clear that they don't want to see Iran develop nuclear weapons capability, and they want to be helpful in avoiding that scenario," including by holding some of Iran's enriched uranium.
The official also warned that Turkey would need to work at its relations with Israel in order to be seen as an "honest broker" which could return it to the helpful role in brokering Israeli-Syrian talks it played in 2008.
"To the extent that they return to the kind of relationship that they have previously had, which has been a very strong and cooperative relationship, they will be able to serve in the role that they seek to play in the region," he said. "If they don't retain those ties, it's going to be harder for them to lead in the way they would like to lead."
Another administration official described the ruling Turkish government as having "a policy of zero problems with neighbors," which they argue enables them to play that honest broker role, potentially even when it comes to Iran.
"We have no problem with Turkey reaching out to Iran, talking to Iran," he said. "But it is important to us that the message be the same."
At a news conference after his White House meeting, Erdogan stressed the role of diplomacy in persuading Iran to give up any nuclear ambitions it might have and made clear that Turkey does not see the need yet for new sanctions.
He also criticized current sanctions against Iran as being ineffective and allowing loopholes for Western goods to reach the Iranian market.
Soner Cagtaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said ahead of the meeting that the US and Iran were far from aligned on their attitude toward Iran. He also cited Israel and attitudes toward Islamic radicalism as places where wide gaps have emerged between Washington and a once reliable secular ally in the Muslim world.
"Some of these differences are getting too huge to bear," said Cagtaptay of Turkey's reorientation. He argued that its efforts to ease tensions with neighbors such as Russia, Syria and Islamic groups had actually revealed an ideology that goes far beyond a desire to balance its relations with East and West but actively shifts towards Islamic and anti-Western elements.
He expected the administration to deliver some reproach on these points but also words of gratitude and entreaty that could muddy the message.
"The administration will say that [there are problems], but also 'Thank you for Iraq and could you please help us with Afghanistan?'"
He said that since Washington is desperate for further foreign contributions to the country, in which Turkey already has non-combat troops, Erdogan would likely see this as an easy way to please Washington at relatively little cost to his policies.
"It would be a golden opportunity misses if Erdogan leaves Washington with a sense that this new stance on Iran and Israel is something that Washington will swallow" in return for more troops in Afghanistan.
In that case, he predicated further divergence between the US and Turkey, and Israel and Turkey to the detriment of Western interests in the Middle East.
On Iran sanctions particularly, Cagtaptay assessed that the effort would be fruitless without the participation of Iran's neighbor and strong trading partner - adding that there was little reason to think Ankara would be joining in.
"If Turkey's not on board with a sanctions regime, there is no sanctions regime," he said.
AP contributed to this report.