May 8, 2006

Months ago, when we planned to visit Ankara, the capitol city of Turkey, on our way back from Iraq, little did we know that our visit would take place in the midst of swirling international developments regarding Iran. I did not imagine that our meetings with the Foreign Minister of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, would take place while the UN was debating sanctions against Iran.

And I never imagined that our meeting with the General Secretary of Turkey's National Security Council would take place in the same building and in the same conference room where the National Security Advisor of Iran had just concluded a meeting ten minutes earlier. But that's just what happened.

Our day began with a short drive to the palatial residence of the Foreign Minister of Turkey, Abdullah Gul. A pleasant and earnest man, the Foreign Minister ushered us into a large conference room and offered a perfunctory welcome.

After I thanked our host for receiving us, I opened the meeting with reference to the fact that the United States values our relationship with Turkey, despite recent differences over our policy in Iraq. I reiterated the comments expressed by Secretary of State Rice in her visit to this country just two weeks ago and invited his comments on Iraq and Iran. Others expressed our concern over the recent meeting with Hamas in Turkey and urged a just resolution of the question of Armenian genocide.

The Foreign Minister leaned forward on his elbows and went to work explaining the Turkish view of each of the issues in an intense but friendly manner.

On Iraq, he expressed the long-standing position of Turkey that Iraq must remain a single country. He said the new government should "concentrate on Baghdad and should not think of separating the country." He urged a long view of the challenges we face in Iraq saying, "I believe for a long time, Iraq will keep us busy."

On the subject of withdrawal, he was equally blunt:

"We should not give up until we see a stable and democratic Iraq....a sudden or immediate withdrawal from Iraq by the United States would be a catastrophe."

Of the root causes of the insurgency:

"Iran's influence is deepening."

On the subject of Iran's nuclear enrichment program, the Foreign Minister alluded to a meeting later in the day with a delegation from Iran that included Iran's National Security Advisor Larijani. He said he expected the Iranians to argue that they needed nuclear power to meet their energy needs but added, "They cannot convince us. They have enough energy sources." He assured us that he would deliver a "strong message" that "nuclear program is wrong" and closed saying that on the subject of Iran's nuclear program, "our policies are the same as United States."

Later in the day we met with the civilian National Security Council headed by Ambassador Yigit Alpogan. Until very recently, this agency was the center of Turkey's national security and is still housed in an opulent building of long corridors, red carpets and ceremonial military displays. We entered the conference room and sat at a long table facing our Turkish counterparts and learned, to our surprise, that the Iranian delegation left that room just ten minutes before we arrived. The topic: Iran's nuclear enrichment program. We got right down to business.

I asked the Ambassador what insights he might share about the situation in Iran since Turkey had shared a border with Iran and had close dealings since about the 15th century.

That was the moment that he informed us that the Iranians had just left and that he had been meeting with them for the past four hours.

He said that Iran had made its case: "they have complaints; they say they have been misunderstood...that they would like the right to have peaceful uses of nuclear energy." Interestingly, he said that the Iranians "are open to inspections and transparency" saying that they assured him "they don't have nothing to hide."

When we asked how he had responded, flanked by two military generals, the civilian head of Turkey's national security said, "We are disturbed that they are intending to acquire nuclear weapons technology." Much later in the discussion, he would use this same phrase, "we told them we are disturbed."

When one colleague asked, "What are they really up to?", the Foreign Minister replied in a nonchalant manner, "They want to develop a nuclear weapon as soon as possible."

The Iranians apparently didn't make their case.

Of solutions, the Foreign Minister stated emphatically that "the only way to solve the problem is through diplomatic matters." But he said he had made it clear to Iran that Turkey stand with the UN saying, "Turkey will abide by all means to any Security Council Resolution." In all, it was an encouraging meeting with a friend who was willing to speak truth to their neighbor.

As we prepared to end the meeting, I told the Foreign Minister how grateful we were to be received on such a momentous day where he met with Iranian and American officials in the same day. To lighten the moment, I said, "I won't ask you which meeting was more tedious!" Our host burst into laughter adding, "And I will not answer this question anyway!" A meeting among friends should always end in a spirit of friendship.

As we fly across Europe enroute to visit soldiers at our hospital in Germany, I am certain that while we are leaving Turkey behind, the topic of our attention in these high level meetings will be front and center for some time. I leave with a sense of the seriousness of this moment in contemporary world history. I also leave with a sense that, while we may differ from time to time with the government of Turkey, we have in this ancient land a friend of freedom and of the United States. And that will be an asset as the United States responds in Iraq and to Iran in the uncertain days that lie ahead.

Mike Pence

Ankara, Turkey