The absence of Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer is expected to weigh on proceedings at a summit of the regional Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) that opens in Tehran Saturday, at a time of tension between Tehran and Ankara.
Iran, Turkey and Pakistan were founder members of the organization back in 1985, with the aim of establishing a "Muslim common market" with cooperation and regional discussion.
It now has ten members, with the adhesion of Afghanistan and six former Soviet republics -- Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.
Economic issues, such as regional trade, banking, road, rail and sea transport, oil and gas will be discussed, along with peace in Afghanistan, which will be represented by ousted president Burhanuddin Rabbani and not the Taliban.
But the absence of Turkey's president, and Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, will be felt politically.
Relations between Tehran and Ankara have been soured on several fronts, on top of the long-standing accusations made by Turkey that Kurdish separatists operate from bases inside Iran.
Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit accused Tehran May 17 of wanting "to export" its Islamic revolution to Turkey.
At the same time, the Turkish press launched a huge campaign accusing Iran of being behind a series of assassinations of non-religious Turkish intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s.
Tehran has vehemently denied the accusations and lodged official protests at what it terms "huge" arrests of Iranians in Istanbul. Iran is also highly critical of Ankara's military cooperation with Israel.
Turkey has also just sent Iran a detailed dossier drawn up by its security forces on the Turkish Hizbollah, a secretive fundamentalist organization suspected of carrying out hundreds of assassinations in Turkey with support from Iran.
Furthermore, Turkey's intelligence service confirmed Monday that a man claiming to be a former Iranian intelligence agent, Ahmad Behbahani, was in Turkey.
Behbahani told US television network CBS that he organized the Lockerbie bombing attack on December 21 1988 which left 270 dead, along with Damascus-based Palestinian leader Ahmed Jibril.
But Tehran has tried to minimize the significance of the absence of the Turkish head of state. "His absence will not affect the conference," Iranian deputy foreign affairs minister Mohammad Hussein Adeli said.
"The fact that the Turkish president, as head of state of one of the founder members of the OEC, would be at the Tehran meeting does not meet that Ankara does not wish to strengthen the OEC," he said.
Like the Turkish leader, Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev said a "busy agenda" prevented him from attending, although relations between his country and Tehran are not good.
The 1996 agreement for the delivery of Kazakh crude oil has still not been enforced, and the pipeline planned to ship oil through Iran, which the United States does not want, has not seen the light of day.
Seven heads of state and the leader of the Pakistani military regime Pervez Musharraf will be at the Tehran summit.
The Turkish and Kazakh heads of state will be represented by Minister of State Mehmet Kececiler and Prime Minister Kasimzhomart Tokayev respectively.
Ahead of the summit, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi opened a ministerial conference Thursday with a call for easing of customs restrictions and strengthening of banking relations between member countries.
He also stressed Iran's continued desire to transport oil and gas from the Caucusus to the international markets, saying it had all the equipment and offered "the shortest, safest, cheapest and most ecological" route -- TEHRAN (AFP)
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