Erbakan looks east to build tiger economy

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Not even pro-Western Turks know quite what to make of the new eastward-looking foreign policy of their first pro-Islamic Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan.

Some call it a tragi-comic charade. Others say it is as if the big-mouthed man in the coffee-house who says: "If I were prime minister, brother, I'd stick it to them like this" had suddenly come to power.

But some academics and editors argue that Mr Erbakan, the once fiery Islamist, is now acting as a statesman and is playing Turkey's few cards to good advantage. Even hostile commentators are lending grudging support to a Turkish policy that has more "personality".

"Turkey behaved as if it had forgotten the word 'no' to America in the last few years. This charity has always brought us losses," wrote Gungor Mengi in the popular daily, Sabah, while maintaining a healthy suspicion about the maverick Mr Erbakan's integrity.

Turkey's diplomatic mandarins are probably correct to maintain that whatever the novelties of Mr Erbakan's style, the basic foreign policy of this increasingly pluralistic nation of 65 million people has not changed and cannot change under the weak Islamist-conservative coalition government.

But Turkey's foreign ministry was disconcertingly left out of Mr Erbakan's loop as he set a new series of priorities that Turkey's European and American partners in Nato are struggling to come to terms with.

Since coming to power in July, he has sent ministers to Iraq, party officials to Syria and is just back from a 10-day tour with a large party of ministers, businessmen and journalists to Iran, Pakistan, Singa- pore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Most controversially, Mr Erbakan signed a 23-year, $23bn deal with neighbouring Iran to buy up to 10 billion cubic metres of gas a year from Iran and Turkmenistan by 2002. On his return to Ankara, he strongly defended the deal. "What could be more natural than us getting cheap, abundant natural gas from right next door," he asked.

There followed a sudden increase in Turkish pressure to rehabilitate its rich pre-Gulf war trading relationship with Iraq, another Western pariah. Protocols signed in Baghdad foresaw greater cross-border trade, pressure on the United Nations to allow Jordanian-style commercial privileges for Turkey and another gas pipeline to bring 10 billion cubic metres of gas to Turkey each year.

Nor has Libya been forgotten. One of Mr Erbakan's ministers says that because of a "disagreement on prices", a project to sell fresh water to Israel from a Turkish Mediterranean river has been diverted towards the parched north African state.

Turkey's flirtation with red-rag names like Iran, Iraq and Libya is almost calculated to stir up bull-like feelings in the US.

The Iranian deal, coming only a week after President Bill Clinton signed a law endorsing sanctions against investors in Iran and Libya whose deals are worth more than $40m. So far, American officials only say they are "studying" the Turkey-Iran deal, but they have voiced opposition to any commerce with what Washington calls rogue regimes.

Since Tehran apparently dropped its long-standing demand that Turkey finance the Iranian section of any new gas pipeline, Ankara has argued that buying gas from Iran is simply trade, not investment.

Nowadays Mr Erbakan also speaks warmly of America and he has defended the key components of Turkey's pro-Western economic and military alliances. He has also backed away from promises to cancel a keynote military training agreement with Israel, and seems likely to go ahead with an agreement to refurbish Israel's F-4 Phantom warplanes.

Following Mr Erbakan's lead, Tansu Ciller, his coalition partner and Foreign Minister, has defended what she calls a "multi-dimensional foreign policy" to make Turkey a "bridge between West and East".

Reporters travelling with Mr Erbakan's party say his true Islamic model state is based on the South-East Asian Tigers of Malaysia and Indonesia. Not unnaturally, he wants Turkey to have a stake in the burgeoning Pacific rim economy.

t Tehran (Reuter) - Iran says it has signed a $1.2bn deal to build a joint oil refinery in Pakistan, working around US attempts to choke its oil industry. Tehran radio said the deal was signed in Islamabad by Iran's Oil Minister, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, and Pakistan's Production Minister, Mohammad Asghar. The report said the two countries would invest jointly in the construction of the 120,000-barrels-per-day refinery in Pakistan's south-western Baluchi- stan province.