Turkey and Iran, Allies or Rivals?
Iran and Turkey have always been pragmatic in their bilateral relations, despite their rivalry and sometimes divergent positions. But the Arab Spring uprisings revealed — and in some cases created — deep antagonisms. Disagreements emerged from the start of the Syrian crisis. Ankara was on good terms with Damascus as part of its policy of ‘zero problems with neighbours’, but having tried (in vain) to persuade Bashar al-Assad’s government to reform, Turkey gave its support to the opposition. Iran, whose entire Middle East policy rests on Syria, took an entirely different stance, supporting the Assad government and mobilising its allies in Lebanon, including Hizbullah, and other networks: Iraqi Shia militias, as well as Shia volunteers from various countries who took part in the siege of east Aleppo. While Iran was becoming the Assad government’s most important ally — at least until the Russian intervention of September 2015 — Turkey was authorising NATO to deploy anti-missile defences on its territory, following violations of its airspace by the Russian air force, and also to protect itself from missiles fired from Syria. Iran was opposed to these decisions, which it saw as a direct threat.
The Iranian government feels that Turkey has abandoned its policy of independence from the United States, which began in 2003 when it refused to facilitate US military intervention in Iraq. In July 2015, Turkey authorised the US to use its air base at Incirlik to launch airstrikes against ISIS (Islamic State) forces. This decision, though it helped to contain the ISIS advance, provoked anger in Iran, where it was mainly seen as a new way for Turkey to seek rapprochement with the US. Iran was also concerned at the convergence of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on Syria that emerged at the start of 2015, when the three countries agreed to coordinate their operations and increase their support for the Syrian opposition. This soon bore fruit: From March 2015, the rebel forces advanced in different parts of Syria. Iran therefore pressed Russia to intervene.
Despite the Iranian nuclear agreement of July 2015, Turkey and Iran began a war of words over Syria, each accusing the other of supporting ‘terrorist’ movements. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was angered by Iranian media accusations that Turkey had purchased oil from Syrian wells controlled by ISIS. As links with some of the oil monarchies strengthened, in May 2016 Turkey established — for the first since the fall of the Ottoman empire — a military base on the territory of its closest regional ally, Qatar. This initiative mirrors the Sunni alliance officially launched by Saudi Arabia in March 2016, of which Turkey and Qatar are both members. These developments — and Turkey’s penetration of the Persian Gulf, which Iran considers its own zone of influence — worry Iran.
Although they are largely opposed on regional issues, Turkey and Iran remain linked by trade and energy. Turkey buys oil and gas from Iran, while Iran imports Turkish consumer goods. But political disagreements are having an impact: The value of trade fell from $21.89bn in 2012 to $13.7bn in 2014 and only $9.7bn in 2015. Though this is partly explained by falling hydrocarbon prices, these levels are well below the target of $35bn that the countries had set. Even so, during the crisis that followed the interception of a Russian aircraft by Turkish fighter jets in November 2015, Iran offered its services as mediator between Ankara and Moscow, no doubt in the hope of improving relations with Turkey. And as a sign that pragmatism still prevails, Iran and Turkey signed an agreement on tourism in 2016 and have been discussing strategic cooperation on oil and gas.
The attempted coup in Turkey on 15-16 July 2016 gave Iran an unhoped-for opportunity to make up with its neighbour. While the coup was still under way, Iran’s foreign minister tweeted support for the Turkish government. The Supreme National Security Council, chaired by President Hassan Rohani, then expressed its official support for the ‘legitimate government of Turkey’. This prompt reaction contrasted with the rather slow response of NATO countries, the official allies of the Erdoğan government. And shortly after the failed coup, Rohani proposed discussions on regional issues, clearly taking advantage of the event to invite the Turkish government to review its position on Syria. In less than a month, there was a rapprochement. The consensus centres on three main objectives already discussed, but without success, in secret talks three months after Rohani’s election: to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity, to combat all extremist and terrorist movements, and to establish a government of national unity through elections supervised by the UN.
Yet despite a formal understanding on these points, disagreements have persisted, notably over the role of Assad, making the rapprochement fragile. The US and Turkey have been working to thaw their relations, icy after the failed coup: Obama and Erdoğan met in early September, and a month earlier Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria, in cooperation with the US, without warning Iran. Taken by surprise, Iran called it a violation of Syrian sovereignty, and accused Turkey of complicating the regional situation. This has not prevented Turkey from extending its operations to establish a de facto safety zone for the opposition on Syrian territory. This sanctuary is all the more important with the fall of the last rebel bastions in east Aleppo, and displeases Iran.
So, although Iran and Turkey are officially pursuing mutual appeasement, as suggested by the meeting between Rohani and Erdoğan during the UN General Assembly last September, their positions continue to diverge on regional policy. In response to Iranian foreign policy, centred on the Shia cause, Erdoğan is gradually setting himself up as a protector of Sunnis. In Iraq, in the context of military operations to retake Mosul, Erdoğan has condemned the presence of Shia militias supported by Iran on Iraqi territory, calling them a threat to Sunnis. He has massed troops on the Iraqi border, hinting that they will not stand by if Sunnis suffer during operations against ISIS in Mosul and Tal Afar (which has a sizeable Turkmen minority).
Some observers think this warning to Iran’s supporters in Iraq — and, indirectly, of Iranian policy on Iraq — could be a basis for a rapprochement between the Turkish government and the Trump administration. If that should happen, Iran would hardly be pleased, given the way Trump and his close advisers talk about Iran.
Mohammad-Reza Djalili is professor emeritus at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva; Thierry Kellner is a lecturer in political science at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. They are co-authors of L’Iran en 100 questions, Paris, Tallandier, 2016. Translated by Charles Goulden.
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