Turkey-Iran Relations: Where to Now?

Turkey-Iran Relations: Where to Now?
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The recent developments in Northern Iraq and Kirkuk have once again brought Iran’s role in the region and its relations with Turkey to the agenda. The two countries’ joint stance on the illegitimate referendum in Kurdistan, their joint action with Russia through the Astana Process to minimize the conflicts in Syria; furthermore, their common position on nullifying the conspiracy against the Qatar administration illustrate that the tensions experienced for the past five years between Iran and Turkey have ended and the two countries have begun to increase their alliance.

It has been stressed before that Turkish-Iranian relations have a constant characteristic defined in the last century and generally, the nature of these relations are extremely predictable. Various determinants, such as an absence of border issues, full awareness of each other’s reflexes due to a shared centuries-old empire mentality, and close collaboration on bureaucratic security procedures until the Islamic Revolution, have inhibited any radical changes to occur in bilateral relations. Even the impassioned psyche of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 didn’t hinder Turkish-Iranian relations.

However, after the Arab Spring commenced in Syria, the two capitals fell on opposite sides, resulting in the tensest bilateral relations in the contemporary period. While Ankara accused the Iranian government of supporting the Baathist dictatorship and having a part in massacres, Tehran argued that Ankara supported terrorist organizations that arose during the later phases of the Syrian revolution. Even though the tension has risen considerably between the two countries from time to time, mutual capital visits between them, even during this period, were apparent.

During the Syrian conflict, Ankara realized that it had been isolated by its Western allies, and the process shifted from supporting a democracy movement in another country to inland terror and even to a matter of survival, therefore, transforming its Syria politics. Despite the influence global allies like the U.S. and regional allies like Saudi Arabia had on this transition, Ankara realized that its policies had been undermined by both its global and regional allies’ politics on the region, such as financing the coup attempt in Egypt. Hence, Ankara, in collaboration with Russia and Iran, intent on preventing theSyrian civil war to perpetuate, participated in Aleppo’s evacuation. Subsequently, the coup attempt on July 15th took place and led Turkey to accelerate its new Syria politics and in January 2017, the Astana Talks had officially begun.

U.S. Problem in Middle East

Since the beginning of 2017, Turkey’s declining relations with the U.S. is the most pivotal factor that prompted Turkey to improve its relations with Russia and Iran. With the rapid decline of relations during Obama’s second term, Turkey was subjected to intense terror and propaganda attacks. The anti-Turkish actions that started with the Gezi protests continued with black propaganda activities such as 'MIT (National Intelligence Organization) trucks' and eventually turned into the most violent terrorist acts of Ankara’s history. Ambassador Bass, an influential actor of the US visa crisis-the latest anti-Turkish move of the US-, has argued that the US administration's “cooperation” helped curb the bloody attacks. Indeed, it is noteworthy that a significant terrorist act in Turkey has not occurred since the end of Obama's term in office.

Undoubtedly, the acts of terrorism in the country are not the only factor that attracted Ankara's reaction and revised its regional policies. The PYD, an extension of the terrorist organization PKK, has increased its dominance along Turkey’s southern borders, especially after 2013. The terrorist organization began to close the southern borders of Turkey when the U.S. furnished the PYD with heavy weapons, which it did not give to the other regime opponents and evaded the sale of such weapons to an ally like Turkey. Although, in August 2016, Turkey seized the town of El Bab with the operation of ‘Euphrates Shield’, the capture of Manbij and Tel Rifaat by the United States and simultaneous protection of the YPG could not be prevented. Consequently, Turkey has repeatedly failed to receive the desired response, even with warning the U.S., saying, “Either Turkey or PYD”.

Turkey’s Plan B

Under these circumstances, the level of confidence among the countries that have undertaken the initiative of the Astana Process has increased significantly in the last year. For example, after the Russian plane crisis, Turkey was on the brink of war with Russia but since has reached the level of obtaining Russian strategic air defense systems. Similarly, for the first time in history, military visits were made between Iran and Turkey at the level of Chief of General Staff. This allowed Turkey to organize a military operation on a larger and more strategic area within Syria with relatively low risk, and by mid-October, Turkish troops were situated in various regions of Idlib.

If the Syrian conflicts can be concluded as intended, under the supervision of the three guarantor states, a peaceful transition process can be initiated in a way that reflects the territorial integrity of the country and the preferences of the Syrian people, in turn, seriously disturbing the comfort of the PYD- which gained the upper hand while the central government was struggling with the opposition and terrorist organizations such as Daesh. It is imperative that before the transition phase, particularly before major forces enter the scene for permanent post-conflict occurrences, PYD gains must be prevented from becoming a status quo.  Northern Iraq is an example of how quickly separatist movements have stepped back through the coordination of regional countries. Despite Turkey's insistence and friendly warnings, the Barzani administration, which issued a referendum on independence, lost its lands, as the President of Turkey has stated. Although, the brave rhetoric of the politicians during the referendum period is not a countervailing one. The insignificance of the support messages given by Western ‘allies’, from Khalidzad to Kushner, as well as the very fundamental differences of opinion within the Kurdish entities, have emerged over the last few days. Turkey has positively responded that the central government has dominance in controversial areas, its approach towards the border of Turkey and emphasizes common struggle with the PKK. It won’t be a surprise that Turkey's anti-PKK operations in Iraq will spread to a wider area with the Central Government’s approval, especially if the Barzani administration doesn’t give up on taking wrong steps in the future. There is no doubt that the relations developed recently between Iran, Iraq, and Turkey have a special share in the rapid and bloodless progress of the process in Kirkuk.

Is the U.S. Testing the Waters?

Considering the variety and size of the U.S. delegation, which was reportedly in Turkey to find a solution for the visa suspension, it cannot be said that only a technical consular issue was discussed between the parties. Clearly, the United States will lose Turkey completely if it follows the usual carrot and stick approach, especially if the Turkish businessmen, bureaucrats, and security personnel who are a held in Turkish custody are used as a means to blackmail Ankara. Although such a result is undesirable for both parties, it will be milder for Turkey since it experienced the worst case scenario on the July 15th coup attempt, however, the US will lose a very important regional partner in the region from the Balkans to Somalia to Afghanistan.

The US delegation may also have been testing the waters regarding Trump’s statements on October 13th that there will be new strategy meetings with allies to impede Iran’s regional dominance. In this instance, Ankara will demand Washington send a definitive blow to the terrorist organizations supported by the Obama administration, from FETO (Gülenist Terror Group) to PYD. Given Trump's statement, “Obama founded ISIS”, there seems to be no reason for the new president to inherit the relations that Obama established with other terrorist organizations. However, Turkey will not accept the excuse “Trump doesn’t have full knowledge of the case” and again, as the high-level Turkish authorities say, it will “take matters into its own hands”, which has been clearly seen in many fields. The regional entity that had been funded for more than 25 years, since Combined Task Force, reached deadlock the moment Turkey withdrew its support.

Turkey’s Preferences

The regional developments over the past five years indicate that Turkey is not the only determining force in the Middle East. However, the Qatari crisis, the Astana Process and the Northern Iraq Referendum have also proved how decisive its regional weight is when Turkey makes rational choices. The United States has been following an undeclared strategy of ‘double siege’ against Turkey and Iran over the last 5-6 years. In this context, although Tehran, as well as Ankara, may occasionally come to the fore as a target, the general course is evident. Turkey is aware of this operation and if a significant change in the U.S. practice is not seen, it will not change its policy in the near future. Turkey will be of vital importance in a period when conflicts between Israel and Syria and its allies over Golan increase, the Israeli-Russian negotiations have become a routine to delay possible war, at least not to make direct contact with each other. The F-35 aircraft, which Israel procured in the past few months and is defined as the world's most advanced warplane, was involved in a "bird strike" on the day of shooting the Syrian air defense battalions. Given it’s a matter of time for conflicts to start between the regime and YPG on the Deir ez-Zor, Hassake, Qamishli line, Turkey will rightly decide for both its survivability and benefits for its allies.

This article was first published in Star Açık Görüş.