A Turkey-led diplomatic initiative to prevent the conflict in Yemen from spreading in the Middle East showed signs of progress Tuesday at talks in Tehran, where Iran’s leadership agreed to work with visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to end the crisis.
“Iran and Turkey agree on stopping the bleeding in Yemen as soon as possible,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said at a joint news conference with Erdogan broadcast by state television.
“With the help of other countries in the region, we can help there to be peace, stability, a broader government and dialogue in Yemen,” Rouhani said.
Erdogan’s visit is part of a diplomatic initiative that Turkey and Pakistan launched after the two countries were asked by ally Saudi Arabia to join the military coalition that launched airstrikes against Houthi rebels after the rebels overthrew the Yemeni government. Both Turkey and Pakistan postponed joining the coalition, which includes Egypt, Jordan and Morocco as well as members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Turkey and Pakistan agreed to defend Saudi territory against attack from Yemeni rebels, but the Pakistani defense minister, Khawaja Mohammed Asif, at talks held in Riyadh a week ago, had asked the kingdom for time “to give peace a chance.”
At a meeting Friday in Ankara between the Pakistani and Turkish prime ministers, it was agreed Turkey would reach out to Iran, while Pakistan would leverage its close ties with Saudi Arabia.
Tensions between Turkey and Iran had flared in late March after Erdogan criticized Tehran for wanting to “dominate” Yemen through the Houthi rebels and demanded it “withdraw all its forces from Yemen, Syria and Iraq.”
The Turkish president did not comment on Yemen at the Tehran press conference. Instead he focused on the need to strengthen bilateral relations with Iran and to work with it to mediate between warring factions in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.
Turkey and Iran are on opposite sides in the Syrian civil war. Iran is a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey signed an agreement in February with the U.S. to train and equip Syrian opposition forces to fight both the government and Islamic State militants.
As agreed with Pakistan, Erdogan framed his talks with Iran as a bid to halt intra-Muslim conflict, which he said had killed 100,000 people in Iraq and three times that number in Syria.
“I don’t make any discrimination, I don’t say, ‘Shia people died, Sunni people died.’ For me there are only human beings – Muslims – dying there,” Erdogan was quoted as saying by the Turkish state Anadolu news agency.
However, Rouhani stuck to his demand for a halt to the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes against the Houthis and for a complete cease-fire between Yemeni government and opposition forces.
The Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, is scheduled to fly Wednesday to Muscat for talks with the government of Oman, a Western ally that neighbors Yemen and is the only Persian Gulf Arab state not to have taken sides in the conflict there.
Oman and Iran are separated by the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which the majority of the world’s crude oil imports flow, and have maintained a friendly bilateral relationship.
Zarif is then scheduled to fly to Islamabad later Wednesday for talks with the Pakistani government.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told parliamentary deputies Monday that he was awaiting feedback from Turkey on its talks with Iran before deciding whether to agree to Saudi Arabia’s request for military support.
In the meantime, Pakistan continues to debate the extent of any military support, with speculation that Pakistan would extend air and naval support but would not commit land forces. The Pakistan army’s chief of staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, met with the commander in chief of the Egyptian military, Gen. Sedki Sobhi, in Islamabad on Tuesday.
Pakistan, which like Turkey shares a border with Iran, does not want to become a combatant in Yemen because that might provoke violent reprisals from Tehran and fuel already dangerous levels of Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence in Pakistan.
The risk of trouble with Tehran was highlighted Tuesday after eight Iranian border guards were killed in a raid by Pakistani militants, Ali Asghar Mirshekari, the deputy governor for Iran’s eastern Sistan-Baluchistan, told Iran’s official IRNA news agency.
McClatchy special correspondent Dugyu Guvenc contributed from Ankara.