How does a country stay friends with both Washington and Tehran? How does it condemn the Syrian regime without alienating Iran?
These are the headaches troubling Turkish diplomats as Iran’s nuclear program and the bloodshed in Syria put them in an increasingly awkward position with neighbors Iran and Syria and traditional ally the United States.
Tehran said Wednesday it wants to ditch Istanbul as the venue for crucial nuclear talks due to take place next week between Iran and six world powers.
The move comes after Istanbul hosted a “Friends of the Syrian People” conference on Sunday that was sympathetic to Syrian rebels, but was sharply criticized by Tehran.
“Taking into account the extremist and illogical position of Turkey on Syria and the recent conference on Syria, Turkey has de facto lost any competence to host the meeting,” Aladin Borujerdi, head of the Iranian parliament’s foreign affairs commission, told Iranian TV.
In an escalating diplomatic spat, Turkey’s foreign ministry summoned the Iranian ambassador Wednesday over Borujerdi’s remarks.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also said he had contacted his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi to express Ankara’s dismay at the comments that “obviously contradicted the deep-rooted relations” between the two countries.
Iran has asked Baghdad to take Istanbul’s place as host of the April 13-14 talks with the P5+1 group -- the permanent U.N. Security Council members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States plus Germany.
Turkey hosted the last round of talks in January 2011, showing its readiness to act as a broker between its neighbor and Western countries accusing Tehran of trying to build a nuclear bomb.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had announced that Istanbul was to be host of the next round, and Iran was still referring to the city a week ago as the best place to hold the talks.
But Wednesday Iran looked bent on punishing Turkey’s stance on close ally Syria.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast accused Turkey of diplomatic double-standards in the region.
“You can’t close your eyes to the legitimate demands of the people of Bahrain and Yemen and pretend to defend the demands of the Syrian people,” he told a government daily newspaper.
Iran and Turkey have insisted they continue to have good relations. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a two-day visit to Tehran last week, where he voiced his country’s unwavering support for Iran's nuclear ambitions, which Tehran says are for peaceful purposes.
But not all of Turkey’s recent moves have pleased Iran.
“Don’t try to follow Turkey’s foreign policy too closely, you risk straining your neck,” said a blog post by Jean Marcou, a French expert on Turkey.
Turkey, an emerging economic power that is the only Muslim-majority country in NATO, has a hyperactive diplomatic program some observers call “neo-Ottoman” for the sprawling empire that preceded modern Turkey.
It has rejected EU and U.S. sanctions on Iran to block its oil exports.
But it has also won praise from Washington for cutting its own imports of Iranian crude by 20 percent.
Ankara also agreed last year to let NATO install an early-warning radar system in its southeast as part of a missile shield that Washington says is aimed at thwarting threats from the Middle East, particularly Iran.
Turkey, a traditional ally of the U.S., currently has a moderate Islamist government, but still gets military support from Washington in its fight against Kurdish separatist rebels that have plagued every Turkish administration since 1984.
A late-March poll by the Istanbul-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies found 54 percent of Turks think if Iran develops nuclear weapons, their country should have a nuclear arsenal of its own rather than count on NATO's protection.