Iranian High Level Military Visit: What Does It Mean?
The visit to Ankara by a committee of ten high level Iranian officials on Tuesday the 15th of August , amongst them the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Brig. Gen. Mohammad Pakpour and headed by Iranian Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Hossein Bagheri, was evaluated as an intriguing development. The meetings between the committee, which is announced to be staying in Ankara for three days, and high level Turkish authorities are of critical importance in terms of regional balances.
Apparently, the visit which is stated as a previously scheduled one has corresponded to an episode of important regional developments. Critical developments such as the Tal Afar Operation in Iraq and the post-Daesh developments in the country, in addition to the independence referendum decision of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region as well as the increasing possibilities of Idlib-centered confrontation scenarios in Syria, oblige the two countries to establish coordination between their military and intelligence authorities. Illegal crossings in the border regions, smuggling and the security wall Turkey has started to build on her border with Iran are some of the topics on the agenda. On the other hand there are strong indications that the visit is not merely about daily matters.
It should be noted that the presence of the Planning, Education-Training and the Military Industry Department Heads of the Iranian General Staff in the visiting group is more remarkable than the presence of Intelligence or Border Security Commanders for the reason that the latter two have already been involved in routine and frequent relations with their Turkish counterparts. However the presence of the education-training, planning, and military industry officials might be the indication that communication is being brought up to a new level.
It is well known that in recent years Turkey has made the effort to raise her political relations up beyond the line of routine alliances between traditional allies and for that purpose she pursues a multi-dimensional and dynamic foreign policy. Despite the fact that Turkey has experienced serious damage to it’s foreign policy of regional integration, there is no change in the ultimate goal. It seems that Ankara’s search for diversity that fits the new international conjuncture has started to enter into the military and security domains. As much as maintaining relations with her traditional Western partners, in terms of purchasing and producing strategic armament, Turkey has also gravitated towards countries like China and Russia with whom she had no deep associations in the past. In this regard it has already been announced that Turkey has agreed to terms with Russia for the purchase of long-range air defense systems. In a similar vein, the military relations between China and Turkey are on the rise, despite the complications involved in purchasing Chinese air defense systems.
Fundamentally, Turkey seems to have decided to carry out a restructuring in her armed forces, upon realizing that she could not make use of them at the desired level in recent regional developments. While a part of that restructuring is related to structure and the human capital, the necessity for which was exposed by the July 15 coup attempt, the other part is related to the breakthrough in the defense industry. Under the influence of facing implicit weapons embargos, experiencing the toughness and inability to use the weapons that she did not produce in line with her needs and the interference with their delivery to the actors she wants to provide armaments to, Ankara aims at meeting her local needs and also becoming one of the numbered global arms producers and exporters through the various partnerships that she is building in the arms industry.
In the light of all these developments, the visit of the Iranian committee cannot simply be defined as a classical visit of courtesy. The visit, which is related to security matters that used to be carried out behind curtains and in secrecy, has been held in an open atmosphere and by a relatively crowded group of officials. This has attracted the attention of the Iranian media and the special meaning of the visit has been stressed by noting that for some of the names in the committee this is their first time abroad.
Both countries have valid reasons for their willingness to improve military and security cooperation. From Turkey’s standpoint the costs of the Iraq and Syria-centered crises have significantly increased. The excessively optimistic atmosphere, brought by the Arab Uprisings, have given way to the tough realities of the region and the idealist discourse has been left far behind. Ankara, which was left in the lurch by the Western countries within the process, has started to have dissenting opinions with her traditional allies, particularly after the coup d’etat by Sisi in Egypt. This led Turkey to initiate the Astana process and cool off the crisis to a great extent.
Most probably a solution to the Idlib-centered conflict through a military initiative to be led by Turkey will cause regime change discussions to be off the agenda, to a considerable extent. Turkey will be more comfortable increasing her cooperation with the powers that prioritize the territorial integrity of Syria.
At this point it could be good to touch upon the Idlib issue. It is apparent that a more sizeable version of the plan of destroying the whole Syrian revolution with the excuse of Daesh, needs to be carried out in Idlib. By alleging Al-Qaeda’s presence, the cutting off of Turkey’s small corridor to the Arab-Sunni population by the Syrian Regime and USA or PYD should not be allowed. If such an operation cannot be carried out or is delayed especially while YPG is busy with Raqqa and the regime forces on the southern and eastern fronts, Turkey may face much bigger hardships than she has faced in the Al-Bab operation. If Turkey can solve the issue through such an operation, she will have a stronger hand against PYD and will not have to deal with an organization that is supported by her Western allies. It may be expected that in the case of an operation in Idlib, Turkey might present to the parties in the coordination process her sensitivities and offers regarding Afrin. Evaluating the military negotiations between Iran and Turkey as the first steps of a larger cooperation would not be a mistake.
Overlapping strategic interests between Iran and Turkey in the new era are not bound up with Syria. The call for a referendum by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq is seen as unacceptable by Iran. Declaring the unacceptability of the referendum from the mouth of Khamanei himself, Iran does not refrain from putting pressure on the KRG by economic means and even by putting into action her dams on the Zap River. Furthermore, the threats against Arbil by Hashd Al-Shaabi groups attached to Iran create the atmosphere of a possible clash in the region at any moment. Despite the close political and economic relations with the Barzani government, Turkey has stated on various occasions the impossibility of a referendum under current conditions. Therefore in the case of a clash between the groups attached to Barzani and Hashd Al-Shaabi, Turkey’s position will be a determinant. Taking all these factors into account, one of the important items on the agendas of the committees could be the rapprochement of the two sides if the referendum turns into a military crisis.
The visit of a high level committee to Ankara in such a period is meaningful for Iran, too. Iran is trying to surpass the pressure she has been subjected to by the Trump administration by having a rapprochement with regional powers. In this context, Ruhani’s discourse of “if pressure continues, we may leave the nuclear agreement” or the allocation of an additional budget to the Revolutionary Guard Corps and ballistic missile program by the Iranian Parliament indicate a possible rise of tensions with the United States. As a matter of fact Iran, foreseeing that development, seems to be willing to decrease the tension with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, even turning a blind eye to threatening statements of Saudi Arabia or not undermining the relations that Riyadh is trying to improve with Iraqi Shiite groups.
The presence of Pakpour, Chief of the Army attached to the Revolutionary Guards, an organization that the United States is pushing to recognize as a terror organization, is also important. The hosting of a high level Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander by a NATO country contains a message to Washington. It provides a practical reply by Ankara to the continuous statements of Washington officials such as “the US and Turkey are allies but Washington does not see YPG as a terrorist organization and she will continue to work with it and provide armaments.” Probably Turkish officials will reply to similar questions stating that alliance with the US is important but they are not on the same page regarding the Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran.
Finally, much as there has recently been normalization in what tends to be a tense relationship between Turkey and Iran –particularly with the influence of the Qatar crisis- and a possibility of further cooperation might arise in the future regarding Syria and Iraq, these relations do not seem likely to turn into an alignment or strategic military cooperation. Turkey, being aware of the inefficiency of hegemonic power on the field, is just trying to strengthen her hand in the regional chaos, negotiate various issues with different actors and solve them.