Turkish-Iranian Relations in the New Era

Turkish-Iranian Relations in the New Era
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President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid a visit to Iran on October 4th, with a large number of state ministers accompanying him and the 4th High-Level Strategic Council meeting was held. President Erdoğan met with his counterpart Hassan Rouhani and religious leader Ali Khamenei. During the meetings, both parties have emphasized the importance of bilateral political, cultural and economic relations.

As it is known, the 30 billion USD target set as the volume of bilateral trade stagnated at 10 billion USD both due to the decrease in energy prices and the tense political relations due to the Syrian crisis. One of the topics of the meeting was the promotion of bilateral trade via local currencies. In addition, commercial issues were not the only topic on the table. The referendum held by the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government and other regional developments have determined the course of the agenda.  

The Course of Relations and Challenges

Noticeably, Turkish-Iranian relations have followed a stable course in the last century. Both countries have followed some constant parameters regardless of the periodically monarchical, republican, theocratical or democratic nature of their regimes. Factors like the similarities in their modernization processes, both being the remnants of multi-national empires, being among the very few Islamic countries that have never been colonized,  and their alliance during the Cold War have been important in the course of the relations.

Furthermore, the most consequential crisis between Ankara and Tehran in the last century has been the diametrically opposed policies of the two sides regarding Syria and the mutual accusation and charges have reached their peak. While Turkey has been charging Iran with supporting the bloody Baathist dictatorship and sectarian expansionism, Iran has tried to accuse Turkey with the ferocious terror of Daesh and started to use the same language with the international press, to which Iran has a distant position most of the time. However, even in such periods, the organization of high-level visits and meetings in both capitals has been an eye-catching matter. 

Influence of the Confidence Crisis with the United States

Ankara has initiated the Astana Process with rival powers and efforts to cool down the conflict upon realizing that the US adopted a passive strategy vis-a-vis the region with the exception of the YPG and the inability of its own regional allies to end the Syrian crisis. In fact, the Syrian issue is not the only factor that poisoned the Turkish-American relations. The decisiveness of Ankara to follow a political course in the region on the basis of its own national interests has resulted in the most bloody bomb attacks and assassinations in its own history, in addition to a coup attempt.

As the recent visa crisis demonstrated, the Turkish-American relations do not seem likely to normalize anytime in the near future. Therefore, as a result of serious conflicts in the traditional Atlantic Alliance, Turkey has initiated a much greater process of security and defense cooperation with Russia that goes beyond the scale of the Syrian crisis and as a concrete example, Turkey has ordered a Russian S-400 air defense system. It is understood that this is not merely a military or technical matter for other international actors considering the local and international reactions given to the issue.

Sectarian Conflict or Geopolitical Rivalry?

While relations with Russia has been set on the course of improvement, there is a similar process regarding Iran, albeit a cautious one. In that, in addition to the continuation of the Astana Process despite minor problems, the invalidation of the assumption that the source of regional conflicts mainly has been ethnic and sectarian differences, especially after the Libyan, Egyptian and Qatar crises, have been influential.

Especially the actors who claim that the main conflict in Syria stems from sectarianism have had efforts against Turkey’s policies that it tried to develop in the last fifteen years in Libya, Egypt and Gaza and most importantly those actors’ initiatives towards an occupation against Qatar, which is the biggest regional partner of Turkey, have resulted in Turkey’s reconsideration of its own regional alliances. The closely similar stances of Turkey and Iran during the Qatar crisis has accelerated the detente in Turkish-Iranian relations.

Kurdish Question and Common Perspective

In most of the analyses on Turkish-Iranian relations, usually two countries are depicted as sharing a similar position regarding the Kurdish issue. That thesis is confirmed by the last initiative of Massoud Barzani as someone whose period of office has already ended, who cannot effectively run his own regional parliament by using the armed force and has already organized an illegal referendum by breaching his own countries constitution.

Ankara and Tehran have reacted similarly, vis-a-vis that crisis stating that the referendum would not be well-received and started to deliver statements for political and economic sanctions against Iraqi Kurdistan. Together with that, one could observe that Iran has taken more careful steps and been precarious not to increase ethnic tension. For example, the first reactions against the illegal move of Iraqi Kurdistan have come from the Kurdish parliament members in the Iranian assembly. They have published a common declaration and demanded the abolishment of the referendum. As the reactions given from the Turkish side are harsher, they attract more attention.

Turkey has established good relations with the Barzani administration within the framework of the Iraqi constitution and provided support both against the extremities of the central government and against Daesh. Until recently, when the regional government could not pay state salaries, Ankara did not hesitate to provide financial support. Therefore the exclusion of Turkey from such an important decision-making process that would have an impact on the next century by making of a fait accompli and delivering frivolous messages to the central government and to other countries in the region with the groundless supports of Western figures has invalidated all bona fides and friendship discourses.

Turkey’s Attitude Against Separationist Factors

Very interestingly, there are still expectations for support from Turkey despite all the realities on the ground and demands for Turkey’s protectorate position in the region. It is particularly important to note that a wide range of observers in Turkey have discovered that Barzani is Sunni. While those who were once upon a time dividing Iraq on the lines of Shiism, Sunnism and Kurds, today defend the division of Iraq by telling that Shiite and Iranian expansionism are great threats and they also demand from Turkey at least to remain silent. Considering the fact that there have been “elections” in areas of Syria where the YPG retains control, it is likely that the same circles will point out how bloody Assad is and therefore will propagate that division is the best option for Syria.

At that point we need to touch upon the emphasis on “Iranian threat” that is often heard in Irbil and that been repeated same often by the pro-referendum circles in Turkey. As it has been stressed numerous times, Ankara’s approach to separatist movements is an independent stance as independent of the approaches of other countries and it has been adopted as a persistent attitude since the foundation of the Republic. Those who defend the view that “undivided Iraq strenghtens Iran” mostly overlook the fact that even when Iran has supported separatist movements during the Iran-Iraq War or until the Tehran Agreement in 1975, There has been no change in Turkey’s stance. Therefore, -it is impossible in terms of Iran’s internal conjuncture though- even if Iran supported ethnical separatist movements in the region, for Turkey that would not mean anything.

New Beginnings in Turkish-Iranian Relations: Visits of the Chiefs of Staff

The visit of the Iranian Chief of Staff to Ankara, as a first in history, three weeks before the current visit and accompanied by a high number of officials, and subsequent to that the visit of the Turkish Chief of Staff to Tehran for the first time since the revolution reflect that bilateral relations could go beyond the economic, cultural, and political domains. It was likely that the technical details of the Idlib operation or military measure against the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government were on the agenda of military talks.

The praises of US President Trump for President Erdoğan in the last two meetings does not change the fact that Erdoğan’s bodyguards are still imprisoned in the US or that the coup leader can retain his activities from his farm in the United States. As long as the US does not cancel delivering weapons freely to the PYD that it does not sell to Turkey or its ambiguous position remains, it would be the most fitting attitude for Turkey to determine its own course in the region. As the most recent visa crisis demonstrates, the confidence crisis between the two countries is deepening over time.

On the other hand, after the Syrian crisis is off the agenda as a point of tension, there will be no conflictual matter between Turkey and Iran. Therefore one can say that Turkish-Iranian relations are to improve in the near future. However, that does not mean the beginning of a strategic partnership in the Middle East that might face a new crisis anytime. Trump’s going beyond mere talk to action against Iran and the potential dimension of the Israeli-Hezbollah clash that is turning into a recent hot agenda has the potential to influence the relations between the two countries.

This article was first published by the Anadolu Agency (AA) on 9 October 2017.