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Turkey-Iran relations and the Syrian dilemma

March 29, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Despite the obvious differences between Turkey and Iran in terms of their political systems and foreign policies, the relations between the two countries appear to be governed by geographical and historical ties which result in common interests. This is despite the bloody legacy of the Safavid and Ottoman Empires, which has left their heirs with points of union, competition and opposition in an area full of crises, interests and aspirations.

When the Syrian crisis began, Turkey and Iran stood on opposite sides, each having different reasons, motives and strategies for doing so. Tehran announced its complete support for the Syrian regime, which was natural and understood in light of the alliance established between them for over three decades. In accordance with this vision, it took action on all levels to support the Syrian regime against its opposition and enemies domestically and internationally.

Ankara did the exact opposite, and took every step possible short of direct action towards overthrowing the regime led by Bashar Al-Assad. The Turkish leadership adopted an unprecedented tone by voicing its protests, giving deadlines and opportunities, turning the Syrian crisis into a cold war between Tehran and Ankara. We started to hear Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu speaking about the end of the “Shiite revival” era and the beginning of the “Sunni revival” era. Meanwhile, Tehran responded with, “If we have to choose between Turkey and Syria, we would certainly choose Syria” and “the issue of overthrowing the regime is a red line.”

Each party believed that what was happening in Syria affected its own national security, and even considered it an internal matter, one way or another. Iran saw events in Syria as a conspiracy with the goal of taking the fight to the heart of Tehran. As such, it mobilised all of its weapons and capabilities in the Syrian regime’s defence. On the other hand, Ankara considers it as an internal Syrian revolution; underneath it all, though, it linked the Turkish regional project with changing the Syrian regime.

Before that, Turkey saw the Arab Spring revolutions as an achievement of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s strategy for the Middle East, and therefore supported it strongly. Perhaps what prompted the Turkish leadership to move in this direction was its sense of the importance of the Turkish model of governance and, perhaps, the “Sunni world’s” leadership in the region.

This is how the Syrian crisis turned into a battle of wills between Ankara and Tehran, accompanied by a strong desire on both sides not to turn it into a direct conflict due to the magnitude of their common interests.

Now, nearly three years after the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, there have been many developments that have changed the previous equation. What happened in Egypt on June 30 last year was a blow to the Turkish regional project and caused a break in Turkey’s relations with most Gulf States, who supported the coup. Moreover, the American position on the Syrian crisis, which ended in finding a joint political solution to Assad’s chemical weapons with Russia, was a disappointment to Turkey as far as overthrowing the Syrian regime was concerned.

Finally, US-Iran rapprochement in the form of the Geneva nuclear agreement changed a lot of equations, as most of the issues regarding Turkey noted above were reflected in Turkish diplomacy by turning it towards Tehran, which also wanted to build links with Ankara. Iran, clearly, was looking to invest in a post-Geneva agreement phase. Several visits were made by officials from Iran and Turkey resulting in an agreement between both sides to commit to the working together to politically resolve the Syrian crisis.

The rule of common interests

Despite the ferocity of the Syrian crisis and its transformation into a main point of contention between Turkey and Iran, it has not soured their relationship, with continued security coordination and moves to improve economic, trade and financial links. This contributed to easing the sanctions on Iran, as the reprehensible corruption scandal in Turkey revealed this side of the financial and commercial relationship between the two countries.

Prime Minister Erdogan has moved quietly to build links with Iran, not least because of his party’s Islamic orientation. This was a deliberate move after previous attempts in Turkey to develop a secular government to stand against Iran’s Islamic administration.

The role of energy in the relationship between the two countries has been enhanced by the opening of the gas and oil lines between Iran and Europe via Turkey and the development of trade links. Nowadays, the volume of trade has reached $18 billion; both sides are hoping that post-Geneva this will reach $40 billion over the next few years.

Cooperation and competition between Turkey and Iran take many forms. From the Central Asian states to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and to the common borders, there are many issues that take the form of security cooperation and coordination in the face of forces and groups which pose a common security threat. These issues are tied to border issues, energy security, the economy and geography and have social, national and sectarian implications; the Kurds on both sides of the border, as well as Iraq and Syria are one, for example, as is Sunni-Shiite discord. All of these issues are taken into consideration in both countries’ policies and the region’s security and stability.

In fact, it is clear that the rule of common interests that governs relations between Turkey and Iran began to progress after a short dip at the start of the Syrian crisis. Both parties are keen to preserve some sort of balance in their regional and international investment policy in order to invest it in the best way possible.

In this context, perhaps Iran may feel the need for Turkey as a “Sunni” partner in light of the deterioration of its relations with Saudi Arabia, while Ankara may feel the significance of Tehran in order to improve its relations with Baghdad, driven by interests on the one hand, and the negative indications regarding its relations with Egypt, most of the Gulf states and Israel, on the other.

Turning a new page

Iran and Turkey’s hopes are high for an economic revival in their relationship after the Geneva nuclear agreement is signed, as Ankara expects to be at the forefront of the beneficiaries of this agreement, especially if it results in the lifting of sanctions on Iran. Turkey believes that lifting the sanctions will provide great economic opportunities and double the volume of its foreign trade by participating in oil and gas projects in Iran.

Based on this, there is talk in Ankara and Tehran of turning a new page. We understand from this that they have reached an advanced stage of consensus on many of bilateral relationship and political issues in the region.

Perhaps the rapprochement between the two countries on the basis of a political solution to the Syrian crisis, each side’s role in the stability of the region and the commitment of cooperation and coordination between them is the foundation for consensus. In Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani is preparing to visit Turkey, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is currently visiting Iran, and both sides are hoping that through these visits they can weave a strategic partnership that forms a relationship between them.

American writer Stephen Kinzer talked about this in his book Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future, as he believes that the new US policy towards the Middle East will be based on strengthening its partnership with Iran and Turkey and relying on the two countries as strategic allies instead of Israel and what he called the traditional Arabs, in reference to the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia. He supports his vision by citing the rapprochement between former US President Richard Nixon and China in the 1970s.

Without taking into account the dilemma of the Syrian crisis and its role in straining the Turkish-Iranian relations, the relationship seems to be facing a new stage full of interests. Each party has its ambitions that motivate it to look for a common axis that will change regional equations at the expense of the Arab countries, especially in the Gulf.

The author is a Syrian journalist. This is a translation of the Arabic text published by Al Jazeera net on 28 January, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.