Iran-Turkey Relations: More Rivalry, Less Friendship

Among the greatest disappointments in this year’s NAM Summit in Tehran was the conspicuous absence of the Turkish leadership. As a major trading partner of Iran, and a rising star among emerging powers, many expected Turkey to take the gathering – which focused on Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian crisis – much more seriously – or, at least, not to de-facto ‘boycott’ it so ostentatiously.

None of the ‘big three’ Turks – from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogen to the President Abdullah Gül and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu – attended the world’s second largest gathering of nation-states. What makes such absence highly controversial is the fact that all of these men used to traverse the Iranian territory in the warm embrace of Iran’s welcoming leadership, buoyant markets, and investment-starved energy resources. In fact, earlier this year, Erdogen personally met Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, to discuss upcoming nuclear negotiations in Istanbul and even convey President Obama’s message to the Iranian leadership

As early as 2010, Iran and Turkey glittered like two inseparable lovers. It was the most astonishing sort of partnership one could imagine: an infatuation between a (Shia-dominated) theocratic republic opposed to the U.S., on one hand, and an (Sunni-majority) ultra-secularist state belonging to the NATO and aspiring to join the European Union (EU), on the other.

It was as dreamy as it was baffling. What brought them together was a combination of two factors: (a) Growing assertiveness among rising powers such as Turkey to more independently pursue self-interest and diversify foreign relations (ostensibly away from the West and towards the East and South); and (b) Almost perfect bilateral convergence, albeit temporarily, in strategic foresight and ideology, as Ankara’s Islamist leadership found growing reasons to reach out to its influential and resource-rich eastern neighbor, Iran.

All was found upon a simple but profoundly appealing bargain: Turkey needed Iran for energy security and influence, while Tehran needed its neighbor to reverse growing isolation within the Western order. Thus, after centuries of rivalry, the two Muslim powers finally awakened to their mutual interests amidst much fanfare.

So what happened? Well, it seems that growing disagreements over Syria  – exacerbated by frustrations with the pace and tone of nuclear negotiations – has not only put Turko-Persian cooperation on key regional affairs on ice, but also it is placing the two powers on a collision course.

They say you can choose your friends but not your neighbors, thus you have no choice but to amend ties and reconcile differences. Yet, it seems that the Turks – for the time being – prefer to ignore or disengage from their Eastern neighbor, rather than confronting it openly, as an irreversible deterioration in bilateral relations becomes ever more likely.

The Mutual Charm-Offensive

The Iran-Turkey partnership hasn’t been an empty flirtation. It has been a blossoming, multifaceted relationship that has covered a whole host of issues, ranging from trade, finance, and energy to cultural exchanges and politico-security cooperation, especially on the nuclear question as well as the Kurdish insurgency.

However, without certain developments in the domestic political landscape of both countries, it would have been more difficult to imagine an increasing level of cooperation between two countries.

With the election of President Khatami in 1997, a so-called ‘Islam-democracy synthesis’ emphasized peaceful external relations. This political paradigm facilitated Iran’s rapprochement with Turkey, which occasionally complained about Tehran’s prior display of “revolutionary excesses”. Later, with the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) ruling Turkey, it became much more acceptable to the Iranian leadership – across the political spectrum – to strengthen political ties with the neighboring NATO state.

Economic issues have also pushed the two countries closer to one another. Iran is important to Turkey, precisely because the Turkish economy faces serious energy-security concerns. In 2008, Turkey had an import-dependence of 93 percent in oil and 95 percent in natural gas.[i]

On top of it, Turkey has an even more serious diversification-problem. In 2005, Turkey imported 66 percent of its gas from one country alone: Russia.[ii] Given Russia’s history of using gas as a tool of foreign policy, as a major NATO member Turkey would seriously consider exploring ‘alternative’ sources of energy-imports.

Iran is both a major natural gas reserve holder and a possible corridor for trans-regional natural gas pipelines connecting resource-rich Caspian states and the Persian Gulf to Europe and Asia. In turn, Turkey is Iran’s gateway to Europe. This is the regional energy-economic map that both Iran and Turkey have sought to optimize.[iii]

The economics of their relationship is compelling. Iran has been Turkey’s second largest supplier of natural gas, with daily gas exports reaching a high of 31.5 million cubic meters in late-2010.[iv] In 2011, bilateral trade stood at $7.5 billion, projected to expand up to $30 billion in 2015.[v] Importantly, Turkish companies – prior to the latest series of Western sanctions – were relatively eager to invest in Iran’s vast energy sector. According to the IMF economist Dominique Guillaume, “the country [Iran] has sizeable energy reserves, with underground hydrocarbon resources estimated at $10 trillion in oil alone (at $75 a barrel) and natural gas reserves at between $3½-4½ trillion.”[vi]

Interestingly, both Iran and Turkey share the same anxieties on the issue of ‘Kurdish separatism’. As a result, the two countries have also been involved in a series of joint military and intelligence operations, where Turkish and Iranian security forces are said to have engaged Kurdish separatist groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK).[vii]

More importantly, Turkey shares Iran’s interest in avoiding another possible military confrontation in the region over Tehran’s nuclear program. This explains why Turkey has played a prominent role as a potential ‘intermediary’ in Iran-West nuclear negotiations.

The Brief Love Affair

In early 2011, undeterred by West’s rejection of the Turkey- and Brazil-brokered ‘nuclear swap deal’, the Turks hosted Istanbul I talks over the Iran nuclear issue, to no avail. Unrelenting, they sent President Abdullah Gül, on February 13th, to embark on a three-day tour of the Iranian landscape, underscoring Turkey’s commitment to stronger bilateral relations and a vision of an unassailable partnership amidst burgeoning economic interdependence

The emotional highpoint of the trip arrived when President Gül – referring to a famous Persian proverb – turned to his Iranian counterpart, President Ahmadinejad, and said, “They say Isfahan is half of the world.” Eager on returning the favor, a pleased and grinning Ahmadinejad replied, “Yes, Isfahan is half of the world. But the other half of the world is Istanbul.” Surely, the ‘valentine’ spirit was in the air. Gül was also greeted by adoring crowds of Turkic Iranians (Azeris) when he visited Tabriz, a former stronghold of Turkic kingdoms in the region, which, in the past, the Ottomans and Safavid empires occasionally fought over.

However, rather paradoxically, as time progressed, the very geo-strategic variables (i.e., the Iranian nuclear issue and Syria) that brought them together increasingly served as a source of growing rancor and mutual-estrangement.

By mid-2011, bilateral relations begun to gradually take a qualitative shift. Coming under increasing Western pressure, Turkey precipitously distanced itself from an increasingly embattled Iran, as the nuclear conundrum proved evermore intractable. Turkey also agreed to station a NATO missile defense shield, ostensibly to neutralize Iran’s ballistic threat – practically nullifying Iran’s prime tactical deterrence against an Israeli-American attack.

In response, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s (IRGC) aerospace chief,Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh retorted, “Should we be threatened, we will target NATO’s missile defense shield in Turkey and then hit the next targets.” This was followed by another incident whereby Iranian security-intelligence personnel temporarily detained and interrogated three Turkish academics on charges of espionage.

Moreover, under U.S. pressure, Ankara has reduced its Iranian oil import by as much as 20 percent and expressed less willingness to act as a financial intermediary – through the state-owned Hallbank – to process Iran’s multi-billion oil trade deals with countries such as India – in effect, contributing to the economic siege on Iran. Although, recent months have witnessed a dramatic peak in Turkey’s gold exports to Iran, apparently to settle earlier lira-based oil payments to Iran.

All Falls Apart

Yet, it was the Syrian straw – supposedly the strategic linchpin in Turko-Persian relations – that broke the camel of Iran-Turkey friendship’s back. Back in August, in response to Turkey’s growing support for the armed opposition in Syria and constant opposition to the inclusion of Iran in any multilateral framework to facilitate political transition in Syria, Iranian Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Seyed Hassan Firouzabadi ominously warned Turkey, “it will be its turn [if it continues to] to help advance the warmongering policies of the United States in Syria.”

This was followed by Iran’s suspension of ‘visa free’ arrangements with Turkey, while Tehran hinted at downgrading security cooperation with Ankara (possibly affecting the Kurdish front).

In return, Turkish officials have accused Iran of hosting PKK rebels and backing the oppression of people in Syria. Earlier this year, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç went as far as saying his country will do ‘whatever is required’ to counter the Iranian threat, despite incessant efforts by Iran’s foreign ministry to ‘damage control’ and downplay statements from the security branches.

While Iran is concerned with Turkey’s so-called ‘neo-ottomanism’ – an ambition to re-claim Turkish historical centrality in regional affairs -, Ankara is concerned with Iran’s influence on Syria. It knows that without Iranian pressure, Assad wouldn’t make drastic reforms.

With Turkish-Syrian tensions culminating in recent cross-border artillery exchanges, threatening a full-scale war, Turko-Iranian ties have come under growing pressure. Iran – along Russia – has also criticized Turkey’s recent plans to host Patriot missile-defense systems, suggesting Ankara could also use it against Tehran in the future.

Overall, depending on how the Syrian conflict unfolds, as well as the dynamics of the Iranian nuclear program, we may enter a renewed phase of confrontation between the two powers after almost a decade of rapprochement.

Suddenly, the two powers have found themselves on the opposite sides of the fence, occasionally exchanging fiery rhetoric and even threats of direct confrontation. We are also witnessing the unraveling of Turkey’s ‘zero problem with neighbors’ policy.

For original article click here

Fuad Shahbazov                                                                 Richard Javad 

Analyst of “Strategic Outlook”                                Filippine based expert on foreign policy


[i] Oil and Gas 2010. Reducing Turkey’s Dependence of Foreign Oil and Gas. Retrieved February 5, 2011, fromhttp://www.oilandgasiq.com/strategy-management-and-information/articles/reducing-turkey-s-dependence-on-foreign-oil-and-ga/

[ii] Caha, Hava 2006. Turkey’s Energy Security.  International Conference on Human and Economic Resourced. Retrieved August 10, 2009, from http://globalcitizen.net/Data/Pages/1871/papers/20090807154049579.pdf

[iii] see Richard Rousseau. “Pipeline Politics in Central Asia.” Foreign Policy in Focus, June 24, 2011, http://www.fpif.org/articles/pipeline_politics_in_central_asia (June 26, 2011)

[iv] Ahramonline. “Iran’s gas exports to Turkey hit new record,” December 25, 2010. Accessed at http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/3/15/2587/Business/Region/Irans-gas-exports-to-Turkey-hit-new-record.aspx

[v]  See Presstv. “Iran-trade hits $7.5 b” December 3, 2010. Accessed at http://www.presstv.ir/detail/154445.html and Tehran Times. “Iran-Turkey Trade to hit $30b,” Februaru 15, 2011. Accessed at http://old.tehrantimes.com/index_View.asp?code=235818

[vi] IMF. “Iran to Cut Oil Subsidies in Energy Reform,” September 28, 2010. Accessed at http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/survey/so/2010/int092810a.htm

[vii]USA Today. “Report: Iran, Turkey coordinate Iraq strikes,” May 6, 2008. Accesed at     http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2008-06-05-turkey-iran_N.htm

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