Why Is Tension Between Turkey And Iran Rising?

Why Is Tension Between Turkey And Iran Rising?
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Trump’s Impact On Turkey-Iran Relations

The tension between Turkey and Iran does not arise from bilateral relations, in parallel with the steps that both the Trump and the Tehran administrations will take in the region, bilateral relations will take shape. Although Ankara has toughened its anti-Iranian rhetoric, in the final analysis, it will not allow bilateral relations to drop below a certain level.

During President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to three Gulf countries between 12- 16 February, President Erdoğan made harsh criticism towards Iran. Likewise, Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, despite not being as harsh as the Israeli and Saudi Arabian foreign ministers with whom he spoke on the same panel, accused the Tehran administration of following sectarian politics. Both President Erdoğan’s and the Foreign Minister’s charges against Iran have been seen as a harbinger of the beginning of a tense period.

Iran reacted promptly, resulting in Turkey’s ambassador to Tehran, Rıza Hakan Tekin, to be summoned to the Foreign Ministry. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Behram Kasimi, accused Turkey of not acting constructively and asserted they acted patiently towards Turkey, but patience has a limit.

The counter-statement made by the Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hüseyin Müftüoğlu, on the same day, was a sign that heralded, at least in the short run, the start of tense bilateral relations. Müftüoğlu stated that Iran has even sent people who took refuge in the country, due to humanitarian crisis (in third countries), to battlefronts and that Iran should put its policies in order instead of blaming others. The spokesman in his statement also underlined the Islamic Cooperation Organization’s and the United Nations’ decisions regarding Iran.

Turkey’s New Tehran Position

When Turkey, Russia, and Iran gathered in Astana a few weeks ago, the sense of good relations was dominant. It was thought that especially after the ominous 15 July coup attempt, the two-country relations between Iran and Turkey entered into an amelioration period and that with the Astana process, Tehran and Ankara met on a common ground with respect to deescalating the Syrian crisis.

Although this process did not continue smoothly, particularly in the course of the El-Bab Operation where Turkish soldiers occasionally confronted pro-Iranian mercenaries, there was a consensus on the positive state of affairs in the relations between the two countries. To such an extent that even in the incidents that resulted in the death of Turkish soldiers, Ankara had not made harsh anti-Iranian statements and had opted only to send senior diplomatic and intelligence officials to Tehran. Therefore, the Turkish Foreign Minister’s statements following those of the President may indicate a new position for Ankara.

It would be more accurate to attribute the reasons for the Turkish authorities’ statements to a nascent global and regional context rather than complications resulting from bilateral relations.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister, Adil El Cübeyr, paid a visit to Ankara on 8 February, a few days before Erdoğan’s visit to the Gulf. The following day CIA Director, Mike Pompei, made his first foreign visit to Turkey and held extensive meetings with his counterparts. A day after Erdoğan’s return to the country, on 17 February, US Chief of Staff, Joseph Dunford, met the Turkish Chief of General Staff, Hulusi Akar, at İncirlik Base showing that with the coming of Donald Trump a new momentum has been gained in Turkish-American relations and that this situation may lead to changes in Turkey’s regional policies.

As a matter of fact, Iran-oriented signs of change in regional policies are not limited to Turkey. If the news in the US press, which states President Trump offered Netanyahu, in Netanyahu’s 14 February visit to Washington, to found a regional security cooperation platform against Iran including Egypt, Jordan, and Gulf countries, is accurate, this will bring about significant outcomes.

Trump’s Iran Trumps

As recalled, during the election campaign, Trump sharply criticized Obama’s Iran policies. By chastising the Obama administration upon the nuclear deal signed with Iran, Trump declared, if elected, he would cancel the nuclear deal which he called “the worst deal ever negotiated.”

Although at this point, it is not expected that the nuclear deal will be cancelled completely for various reasons, Trump has a lot of trumps at his disposal to clamp down on Iran. Foremost among these come the re-intensification of the sanctions which have never been completely lifted due to reasons such as Iran’s ballistic missile test. According to some experts, because this situation may mean a cease of benefits of the nuclear deal from Iran’s viewpoint, it may push hardliners in Tehran to withdraw from the deal. Such a decision would be more beneficial from the US’s viewpoint than the US’s revocation of the deal itself. In turn, strengthening the US’s position vis-à-vis the other sides, especially Russia and China, that advocate protection of the deal.

It is understood that even if for different reasons Washington’s aforementioned new position has been welcomed by countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. For, not only has Obama put his signature under the policies opening the way of Iran, especially in his second term at the risk of miffing the US’s traditional allies which led to an increase of Russian and Iranian field dominance in Syria, but it has also led to transformation of the Yemeni civil war into Saudi-Yemeni and pro-Iranian groups threats against the Bahrain administration with armed insurgency. As for Israel, Washington’s indifference to the Syrian crisis paved the way for Lebanon’s Hezbollah to gain much more efficient war experience and to diversify and enhance weapon stock at its disposal at unprecedented levels.

Why Bahrain?

In light of the above-mentioned information, it is especially striking that President Erdoğan made his statements against Iran’s expansionist policies in Bahrain. In fact, even the Turkish delegation’s decision to visit Bahrain on its own had symbolic importance. Bahrain, whose population is mostly composed of Shiites, is a country in which Iran sometimes overtly through its proxies claims right. 

As President Erdoğan was given the Bahrain highest state order, various security agreements were signed between Turkey and Bahrain, and news regarding the exile of the Bahraini opposition leader to Turkey in the Iranian press emerged, all indicate that Turkey, going forward, will take a more active positioning about Bahrain and will concern itself more closely with this small country of the Gulf.

It is observed that Iran has rapidly noticed the new period’s codes and has tried to determine a relevant strategy in sync with this new period. Hence, President Hassan Rouhani took a step to prevent regional confrontation by paying a visit to the gulf countries of Oman and Kuwait with which Iran has moderate relations as synchronic with Erdoğan’s visit. Iran’s initiative is especially important when the dose of Trump’s administration anti-Iran statements are taken into consideration. During adversities, Iran traditionally tries to overcome such pressures through forming regional cooperation. Hence, during the Iran-Iraq war or when exposed to comprehensive global sanctions due to its nuclear activities, the Iran’s most significant breathing tubes were regional powers such as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

It seems that Iran has entered an episode appearing inevitable that it will encounter a serious global challenge under the Trump administration. That all the active powers of the region are taking a position against Iran and that even the Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi was persuaded to take part in these abovementioned efforts by Trump have made Tehran’s situation much more difficult. Therefore, up until these lines are being written any reaction from the highest Iranian authorities towards the statements of President Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu have not come and they have adopted a more conciliatory stance in order not to aggravate relations.

As a result, it is possible to say that the tension between Turkey and Iran is basically not because of bilateral relations, and what will determine these bilateral relations will be the steps both the Tehran and the Trump administration will take. At this point, one idea that should not be overlooked is that although Ankara has toughened its anti-Iranian rhetoric and has been pleased with the possibility that Iran’s regional ambitions have been reined in, it will not, in the final analysis, allow the bilateral relations to drop under a certain level and will not adopt a hostile existential stance against Iran as some other regional powers will.

This article was published at Al Jazeera Türk in 23 February 2017