Abdullah Gul on Iran, Iraq, the EU and Turkey

Turkey's president Abdullah Gul is one of his nation's most polarizing figures. Western-oriented and pro-EU, his Justice and Development Party has roots in Islam and pushed to abolish the ban on headscarves in universities, provoking debate about the nature of liberalism in this secular nation. Turkey's leaders face a similar balancing act abroad, with instability over its eastern and southern borders—and tentative allies in the West. NEWSWEEK's Rana Foroohar talked with Gul about being in the middle of it all. Excerpts:

Foroohar: THE conflict in Russia and Georgia is obviously on everyone ' s mind. What role can Turkey play going forward, given the geopolitical dynamics?
Abdullah Gul:
To our west we have the Balkans. To our east we have the Caucasus. Both of these regions and their stability are important for us because if you have stability in the Caucasus, and added to that if you have trust and confidence, then you have the right climate for economic cooperation. And the Caucasus are key as far as energy resources and the safe transportation of energy from the east to the west. That transportation goes through Turkey. That is why we are very active in trying to achieve an atmosphere of dialogue, so there is the right climate to resolve the problems. If there is instability in the Caucasus, it would be sort of like a wall between the East and West; if you have stability in the region, it could be a gate.

What do you think of the United States ' relationship with Iran at the moment?
The problems between Iran and the United States are, of course, something that concerns us. We would like to see a normalization of the relations. We would like to see the problems resolved. Nuclear issues are important for us as well: we don't want to see any weapons of mass destruction in our neighborhood. And in this context I believe the package that has been presented by the six countries most recently is a very good one, a very valuable one, and we have also contributed to the preparations and the discussions. I have spoken with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I explained this to him, and I hope, we hope, that the problems will be resolved through dialogue.

What would Turkey like to see happen in Iraq?
The territorial integrity and political unity of Iraq is very important, and it should be important for the United States as well. There should not be any alternative to this idea, and things seem to be moving along in this direction and that's why we are pleased with it.

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Given the economic climate, what reforms do you think are particularly important?
It is important to keep to fiscal discipline, and on energy issues further liberalization is important, and the continuation of the privatization program.

You have said in the past that you have no intention of trying to turn back the secularization of Turkey. What would you say to people who are concerned about the abolition of the ban on the headscarf?
We are a people who have been working very hard to make sure Turkey becomes a part of the European Union, a member of the European Union. There is no question that our direction is toward Europe. If we wanted to establish a system that is not secular, we would not have been doing all this because the two would be contradictory. The Turkish Constitution states that Turkey is a democratic secular social state respecting the rule of law, and there is widespread, very strong consensus on those basic characteristics of the Turkish republic, with the exception, perhaps, of some very few marginal groups.

Can you talk about the divide within Turkey between the people who come out on either side of these issues?
I believe that this divide, as you call it, does not exist. It is rather an exaggerated expression of what is going on. It is a discussion, and there are various families. If you look at one family, for example, there are people in that family who practice their beliefs more and others less. Or, if there are women in the family, some of whom cover their heads, some of whom don't. And you see the people on the streets, the girls, one covering her head and the other one not, holding hands and walking, talking on the streets. So there is no such rift as you describe it. It is just a political discussion.

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Abdullah Gul on Iran, Iraq, the EU and Turkey | World