Iran-US rapprochement is only one of the factors pushing the Turkish government to approach Iran for better relations. Turkey’s strategic interests have served to push the two nations towards restoring relations despite their disagreement on the Syrian crisis. Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, the countries have enjoyed relatively healthy relations. It is now expected that the two countries will search for common positions on Syria, but this will not happen immediately. Although this Iranian-Western, particularly Iranian-US, convergence may bring short-term economic benefits for Turkey, it could harm its strategic interests in the region in the long run by increasing Iran’s regional influence at the expense of Turkey’s.
Last year saw significant developments at the internal and external levels for both Turkey and Iran, prompting them to review their relations which had become tense because of the Syrian crisis. One of the most important developments was Iran-US rapprochement after the nuclear agreement between the P5+1 group and Iran on November 24, 2013, a result of the openness policy adopted by the new Iranian president mid-2013. Due to a range of factors which coincided with Iran-US cooperation, Iran and Turkey moved to restore their relations despite continuing disagreement over the Syrian crisis. Turkey expressed its satisfaction with the Iran-US relationship, and Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said, “It is a target that Turkey has long sought to achieve and exerted great efforts to reach. This convergence will contribute to increasing economic cooperation between the two countries and reducing tension in the region.” (1)
Despite the optimism about and warm reception by Turkish leaders, Turkey also considers the threats that may result from this cooperation, especially since Turkey-Iran relations have always manifested political competition, even at the best of times. This competition was evident, for example, in Iraq after US occupation, despite the existence of strong trade links between the two countries. It also emerged strongly in the Syrian crisis, a factor that has made the relationship extremely tense. The Syrian crisis has caused a severe deterioration and rift in the relations between Turkey and Iran. Initially, relations between the two countries improved rapidly after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in Turkey. In the period leading to the Syrian crisis, Turkey played an important role in reducing political pressure and trade restrictions imposed on Iran, in cooperation with other international powers such as Brazil. This was apparent particularly when Turkey and Brazil voted against the decision taken against Iran at that time. (2) The agreement concluded between Brazil, Iran and Turkey on May 17, 2010 concerning the Iranian nuclear issue was an important attempt by Turkey to find a peaceful solution to this challenge. Turkey’s basic strategy in its relations with Iran was represented by its quest to reduce tension between Iran and the West. The Turkish government was widely criticised for seeking to strengthen relations with Iran at that time, and its actions were described as a change in its political orientation. (3)
Iran-US rapprochement is a new factor that, together with a range of other internal and external factors, catalysed Turkey and Iran to re-examine their strained relationship. Inherent in this re-examination is a range of opportunities and threats at the regional level.
This paper investigates the effect of Iran-US rapprochement on Turkish-Iranian relations under the new set of variables that have appeared on the political scene during 2013 and examines possible positive and negative results for Turkey. These two objectives are expressed in these two questions:
1. What is the impact of the Iran-US rapprochement on Turkish-Iranian relations?
2. What opportunities and threats might Turkey face as a result of Iran-US rapprochement?
Iran-US rapprochement and changes to Turkey-Iran relations
The visits between the Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers over the past months are considered important steps in reducing tensions between the countries, signalling a desire by both states to restore joint cooperation tying them together before the Syrian crisis. (4) Efforts to activate Turkish-Iranian relations are not coincidental. They are correlated with external and internal factors related to the new US political attitude toward Iran and Syria, the inability of both countries as regional powers to absorb the Syrian crisis, the recent exposure of Turkish-US relations to incongruence on more than an issue, the Turkish government’s feeling that it is exposed to internal and external threats and Iran’s desire to reshape its foreign strategy. (5) Both Turkey and Iran have recognised that, in spite of their differences on regional key issues, especially the Syrian crisis, both should invest in their points of agreement and compromise for the interests of both countries, particularly in the area of trade cooperation.
Examples of contradiction and convergence and their impacts on political relations between the two countries are evident in the heated exchange between their foreign ministers in Switzerland one week before Erdogan’s visit to Tehran. (6) This new phase in Turkish-Iranian relations is that the Syrian crisis is no longer the sole determinant of the relationship between the two countries as it has been for the past two years. Therefore, the new Iran-US relationship is not the only impetus motivating restoration of relations between the two countries, as evidenced by the Turkish inclination to establish strategic relations with Iran – just before the outbreak of Syrian crisis – in spite of the hostile relationship between Iran and the US. The Turkish government has moved towards Iran based for a combination of factors that advance its strategic interests in the region. This Iran-US convergence only served to boost these factors.
In spite of great interest in the US’ new strategy toward Iran, it seems that Turkish politicians view Iran-US convergence with realism. The Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, criticised the notion that the latest Iran-US understanding would lead to a change in strategic relations in the region, saying this was exaggerated. (7) However, the Turkish foreign ministry maintains its strategy of anticipating events and attempting to participate in them, instead of avoidance and waiting for results. Its involvement in the Iran-US rapprochement process is to seize opportunities and minimise threats as much as possible.
Issues related to Iran are considered key in relations between Turkey and the US. The table below presents results from a study by the Foundation for Global Strategic Studies in Turkey (USAK) indicating issues related to Iran were at the top of the agenda of visits by US officials to Turkey during the past four years, followed by issues such as the fight against terrorism, Syria, Iraq and Israel. (8) It is expected that Turkey will enter impending Iran-US relations, and will participate in any political project that may result in positive outcomes.
|Agenda items for US Officials visiting Turkey (2009 – 2013)|
|Fight against terrorism||3||1||3||2||2||11|
|Democracy in Turkey||1||0||2||0||2||5|
|Source: USAK Amerika Ara s tirmalari Merkezi|
Failure of regional powers to resolve Syrian crisis
The Syrian crisis tops the factors influencing Iranian-Turkish political relationships, even contributing to confrontation between the two sides. The consensus among world powers on holding Geneva 2 to find a solution to the crisis shows the failure of influential regional powers led by Turkey and Iran in the management of this crisis. Hence, we can conclude that the timing of Davutoglu’s visit, parallel to Geneva 2, was an attempt by the two most influential regional powers to restore their roles by taking advantage of common points of understanding, especially in trade relations. (9)
Turkish-American relations were in harmony with respect to the Arab Spring and the Syrian crisis, but the past year brought with it a divergence of views, especially with regard to the US’ inability to take a firm decision against the Syrian regime even after its use of chemical weapons against civilians. Further divergence came with the White House’s unclear position on labelling the military coup in Egypt. These issues represented a lack of harmony between global and regional powers. (10) Although Turkey’s inclination to converge with Iran is consistent with Iran-US rapprochement, Turkey is seeking for a new strategy to resolve the Syrian crisis, preserve its strategic interests, and search for alternatives to offset its strained relations in the Western and Arab arenas.
Looking for alternative communication channels
The Turkish government found itself facing several internal and external pressures and challenges during the last year, including events at Taksim Square, corruption files opened by the judiciary against people close to the ruling AKP and the clash with the Fethullah Gulen group. The government was also faced with political differences with many countries in the region such as Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to its strained relationships with Syria and Iran. Turkish foreign policy has thus sought to reconsider its position at the regional level. (11) Turkey’s strained relationship with an important regional power such as Egypt obliges it to rethink its relationship with Iran to prevent itself being isolated at the international and regional levels, especially after the emergence of a Saudi-Egyptian axis supported by France and Iran-US rapprochement. (12) At the domestic level, it can be inferred that America has its hands in the recent threats encountered by the Turkish government, especially in the last security operation on December 17, 2013, in addition to hints by AKP leaders on the presence of external forces in domestic anti-government movements.
From Iran’s side, rapprochement with the US can be reversed at any time if Iran draws red lines with respect to its nuclear programme. An example of the incomplete picture of this convergence is the exclusion of Iran from the Geneva 2 conference. (13) At the domestic level, economic pressures inside Iran have increased with a high rate of inflation and price increases. Economic sanctions have caused a loss of nearly 65 per cent of its petroleum products revenue. The deficit in foreign currency also caused a drop in the value of the Iranian Riyal to unprecedented levels during the past few years. (14) Thus, both Turkey and Iran are seeking to compensate for their losses on regional and global levels.
The threat of Kurdish militias in north-eastern Syria
The Kurdish question is one of the primary concerns of the Turkish government. It obliges the government to rethink its relationship with states that have Kurdish populations, such as Iran, Syria and Iraq. (15) Turkey felt threatened when the Popular Protections Units (YPG) of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) made military gains in parts of north-eastern Syria near the Turkish border after benefiting from the struggle between Syrian opposition forces and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), pushing it to closer relations with Iran. The Kurdish issue was of serious importance, raised by Erdogan during his January 29, 2014 visit to Iran. (16) Iran and Turkey share common concerns with regard to the separatist Kurdish groups in their countries which collaborate with Kurdish organisations in Iraq and Syria. The Kurdish issue is a common thread of cooperation ensuring some level of continued positive relations in the future. This cooperation could contribute to easing Turkish fears of the impact of Kurdish militias on its eastern and southern borders.
Iran-US rapprochement and the future of Turkey-Iran relations
Iran-US cooperation increased the complexity of international relations networks in the Middle East. It is difficult to determine the nature, prospects and limitations of the effects of this convergence. Putting aside opportunities that such convergence can bring to some regional powers such as Iraq and Syria, others see it as a clear threat. Convergence can be a threat and an opportunity for Middle Eastern states, depending on the nature of their relations with Iran and the US. Countries that have hostile relations with Iran, such as the Arab Gulf states and Israel, have felt the seriousness of this convergence and expressed dissatisfaction with it. Turkey has viewed this convergence as a fait accompli and sought to take advantage of the opportunities that can be realised from it, minimize the risks that it can produce and officially announce its support for this rapprochement. (17)
The US and European Union have eased economic sanctions on Iran after resolving the ambiguity related to the centrifuge, the most sensitive issue of uranium enrichment. (18) Turkey has long sought to establish stronger trade ties with Iran, but its efforts were obstructed by economic sanctions on the latter. Western powers have frequently criticised Turkey because it sought to establish trade relations with Iran. However, after the recent Iran-West cooperation, and if the sanctions are mitigated, Turkey may take advantage of the opportunity to increase its foreign trade and access to energy sources with more ease and at affordable prices. (19) Some analysts believe that Iran-West, particularly Iran-US cooperation, can bring short-term benefits for the Turkish economy, but will harm Turkish strategic interests in the long term. (20) This is because this convergence could lead to increased Iranian influence in the region at the expense of Turkish influence.
In spite of the many possibilities projected for the future of the Iranian-American convergence, Turkey seems to have drawn a strategic line with respect to its trade relations with Iran, one that can be inferred from high-level visits exchanged between the parties, including the most important recent visit of the Turkish prime minister to Iran, and the announcement of a high level of trade cooperation between the two countries which will be activated with Rouhani’s upcoming visit to Turkey. (21)
The table below indicates that despite the rapid increase in trade volumes between the two countries since the AKP assumed power, 2013 witnessed a significant reduction in the volume of trade because of the sanctions imposed on Iran. (22) Economic objectives have been identified as priorities of this visit, despite the heavy political tension resulting from the Syrian crisis. (23) Erdogan announced that Turkey aimed to increase the volume of trade between the two countries to $30 billion in 2015. (24)
|Trade Volume Between Turkey and Iran|
|Value (Billions of USD)||1.25||2.39||2.77||4.38||6.69||8.05||10.22||5.43||10.68||16.05||21.88||13.5|
|Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey|
In contrast to the Turkish rush to boost economic relations with Iran to the highest level, the US has taken a more conservative approach because it believes it is not yet time for such a level of trade relations. US reservations were expressed by US Treasury Advisor David Cohen, charged with supervising the implementation of sanctions on Iran, during a visit to Turkey on December 19, 2013, when he pointed to the nature of the sanctions imposed on Iran and the necessity to abide by these measures. (25) Cohen advised Turkish companies to postpone doing business with Iran as sanctions remained on Iranian banking, energy and shipping sectors in spite of the nuclear deal between the P5+1 group (US, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany) and Iran on November 24, 2013.) (26)
Looking for common ground on Syria
Turkish relations with Iran and Syria have not been tied to the relations of these countries with the United States. Davutoglu highlighted this when he indicated the cause of the worsening relationship between Turkey and Syria came after the Syrian regime had fought against and killed its own people. Before the crisis, he said, Turkey had insisted on strong ties with Syria despite the latter’s negative relations with Western powers. Contrary to Turkey’s hopes, western powers led by the US were unable to resolve the political conflict resulting from the Syrian crisis and took a diplomatic approach to find a solution to the conflict.
This caused Turkey to be held back in dealing with this crisis, being forced to find diplomatic ways to reduce the potential damage that could be caused by the crisis. It is expected that the next period of Iran-Turkey relations will include attempts to forge common ground on Syria, even though this has not yet been the case. (27) It is also expected that Turkey will rethink its policies on Syria and be forced to use less assertive strategies if it wants to be party to the ongoing international dialogue on the issue. (28) In contrast, the high level of convergence between Iran and the US is expected to witness the US attempting to influence Iran on the Syrian crisis. (29) To demystify the future in this regard, the outcomes of Geneva 2 will give clearer indicators on the positive or negative impacts of Iran-US rapprochement on Turkey. (30)
Among the first indications of Turkey’s bid to find common ground with Iran on the Syrian crisis was Davutoglu’s comment in a press conference in Tehran about Turkey’s opposition to the presence of foreign fighters in Syria and his suggestion that everyone should be opposed to foreign fighters. (31) In spite of explicit Iranian support to the Syrian regime, Turkey has sought to differentiate between its position against the Syrian regime and its relations with Iran. Turkey also seeks to ease the contradictions that can arise from its role in NATO and the presence of NATO forces in Turkey on the one hand, and the presence of US military bases on its territory and its relations with Iran on the other. For example, Turkey reassured Iran after the latter felt threatened by the NATO Patriot missile defence system placed in the Turkish areas of Jiyhan, Adana and Injirlik. Turkey confirmed that the defence system was not directed at Iran, but aimed to protect Turkish territory against possible Syrian attacks. (32)
|ReFigure 1: NATO and American Military Presence in Turkish Territories, Zanotti, Congressional Research Service, December 20, 2013|
Likelihood of Turkish-Gulf rapprochement
After the military coup in Egypt caused tension in the relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Turkish-Arab relations more generally, Iran-Turkey tension began to ease, especially given Iran-US convergence. Countries that could be affected by this convergence, such as Turkey and the Gulf states, felt the need to act together. (33) Turkey also sought to restore relations with Iraq on political and business issues. Trade relations between Turkey and Iraq developed significantly over the past year, especially in the energy field. Turkey had imported 51 per cent of its energy from Iran before 2013; this figure fell to 28.5 per cent in 2013 and it offset this shortfall by importing Iraqi oil. Imports of Iraqi oil rose from 10 per cent of total oil imports in 2012 to 32 per cent in 2013. (34) By strengthening relations with Iran, Turkey will seek to alleviate the sectarian crisis that struck the region and appeared clearly in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. (35)
Probability of declining Turkish and rising Iranian role
Before US-Iran convergence at the end of 2013, and before the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, Turkey played mediator between the two countries. That role is no longer justified since the two parties meet directly. The continuation of this convergence may give Iran greater opportunities to increase its influence in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Thus Iran’s role will become more important than Turkey’s with regard to western powers, especially the US, in their attempts to reach their goals through non-military means. (36) Among the expected results of Iran-US cooperation is the wide latitude given to Iranians to exercise political influence over Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arabian Gulf. This will, in turn, limit the regional role of Turkey. (37)
Turkey, which adopts a flexible and pragmatic foreign policy, will not stand by and allow this to happen. It will try to participate in any political process related to core issues in the region, especially the Syrian crisis. Turkey will try to balance its relations with Iran and the Arab Gulf states and will seek to achieve a greater degree of harmony between these relations to maintain ties with all the regional powers and still be able to face threats that may arise from any Iranian role.
Last year saw significant developments at both the internal and external levels in Turkey and Iran. These have contributed to the tendency of both countries to review their relations which took a tense turn after the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. The most important development in 2013 was the opening of a new page in Iran-US relations after the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran. Despite the importance of Iran-US cooperation in motivating Turkey to restore ties with Iran, this factor is not the only motivation for restoring ties between the two countries. Turkey had a tendency of establishing strategic relations with Iran before the outbreak of the Syrian crisis and despite previous hostile relations between Iran and the US. Thus, the Turkish government moved towards Iran based on a combination of factors that will help Turkey reach its strategic objectives in the region. Iran-US cooperation boosted these factors from different dimensions.
Despite the fact that Turkey’s attempt to strengthen relations with Iran has coincided with Iran-US convergence, Turkey is seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis, preserve its strategic interests through this convergence and look for alternatives to offset its strained relations with the Western and Arab worlds. The Turkish government has found itself confronting several internal and external pressures and challenges, including events of Taksim Square, corruption cases opened by the judiciary and the confrontation with the Gulen group. Also, it found itself facing political differences with many countries in the region such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Israel, in addition to Syria and Iran. Therefore, Turkish foreign policy already sought to reconsider its regional policies. Among the important and fundamental factors that caused Turkey to restore its relations with Iran was its fear of the Popular Protection Units of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which had made military gains in north-eastern Syrian near the Turkish border after benefiting from the struggle between Syrian opposition forces and ISIS.
Some analysts believe the western, particularly American, rapprochement with Iran could bring short-term economic benefits for Turkey. In the long term, however, it could harm Turkey’s strategic interests by increasing Iranian influence in the region at the expense of Turkey’s.
Although this has not yet happened, it is expected the next period of Iran-Turkey relations will witness attempts to look for common ground on the Syrian issue. It is also expected that Turkey will review its calculations on this issue, and will be obliged to use a less assertive strategy if it wants to be privy to ongoing international dialogue on the Syrian crisis. On the other hand, with the rise in the level of the expected convergence between Iran and the US, it is expected the US is working to influence Iran’s policies regarding the Syrian crisis.
*Dr. Muhammad Jaber Thalji is a researcher specialising in Turkish affairs.
(1) US-Iran Relations, Rota Haber, 28 September 2013, http://haber.rotahaber.com/davutoglundan-abdiran-iliskisi-aciklamasi_403434.html.
(2) Levent Basturk, “Turkey-Iran Relations in the Context of the Prime Minister's visit to Tehran,” Dunya Bulteni, 3 February 2014, http://www.dunyabulteni.net/haber-analiz/288462/basbakanin-tahran-ziyareti-baglaminda-turkiye-iran-iliskileri.
(3) Arif Keskin, Turkey-Iran Relations: Opportunities and Risks, AlJazeera Turk, 29 January 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com.tr/gorus/turkiye-iran-iliskileri-firsatlar-ve-riskler.
(4) Kemal Inat, “Prime Minister's Visit to Iran,” SETA, Siyaset Ekonomi ve Toplum Arast?rmalar? Vakfi, 30 January 2014, http://setav.org/tr/basbakan-erdoganin-iran-ziyareti/yorum/14420.
(5) Selahattin Erdem, U.S. Policy and AKP-Iran Talks, Yeni Özgür Politika, 3 February 2014, http://www.yeniozgurpolitika.org/index.php?rupel=nivis&id=5302.
(6) Selahattin Erdem, 3 February 2014.
(7) Saudi-Turkish Coordination Pledges for Security and Stability, Akath Newspaper, 4507, 14 December 2013.
(8) Mehmet Yegin ve Eyup Ersoy, “Turkey-US Relations: Towards Multi-Dimensional Partnership, USAK Amerika Arastirmalari Merkezi, Uluslararasi Stratejik Arast?rmalar Kurumu 32 (2013), 32.
(9) Inat, 30 January 2014.
(10) “Turkey in 2013,” SETA, Siyaset Ekonomi ve Toplum Arast?rmalariVakfi.
(11) Keskin, 29 January 2014.
(12) Basturk, 3 February 2014.
(13) Erdem, 3 February 2014.
(14) Sameh Rashid, “Under the Leadership of Rouhani: Iran Between Compression and Susceptibility,” Arab Affairs 133 (2013), 9.
(15) Basturk, 3 February 2014.
(16) Erdem, 3 February 2014.
(17) “US-Iran Relations,” 28 September 2013.
(18) Mithat Yurdakul, “Regulation of Turkish Banks by US Regarding Iran,” Milliyet, 23 December 2013, http://ekonomi.milliyet.com.tr/turk-bankalarina-abd-den-iran-ayari/ekonomi/detay/1810043/default.htm.
(19) Inat, 30 January 2014.
(20) Keskin, 29 January 2014.
(21) Inat, 30 January 2014.
(22) Jim Zanotti, “Turkey: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service 32, 20 December 2013.
(23) Inat, 30 January 2014.
(24) Sami Kohen, “Relations with Iran: Cooperation and Competition,” Milliyet, 31 January 2014, http://dunya.milliyet.com.tr/iran-la-iliskiler-isbirligi-ve/dunya/ydetay/1829809/default.htm.
(25) “David Cohen, US Treasury Advisor: Surprise Visit to Turkey,” Elwatan News, 20 December, 2013, http://www.elwatannews.com/news/details/376028.
(26) “Erdogan In Tehran Today To Meet Khamenei and Rouhani,” i24News, 28 January 2014, http://www.i24news.tv/ar.
(27) Basturk, 3 February 2014.
(28) Yildiz Yazicioglu, “US-Iran Convergence,” Amerikanin Sesi, 7 November 2013, http://www.amerikaninsesi.com/content/abd-iran-yakinlasmasi-turkiyeyi-etkiler/1785706.htm.
(29) Yazicioglu, 7 November 2013.
(30) Yazicioglu, 7 November 2013.
(31) “Iran-Turkey Dialogue Most Important in the Region,” Haber Turk, 27 November 2013, http://www.haberturk.com/dunya/haber/898061-iran-turkiye-diyaloguna-davutoglu-yorumu.
(32) “Turkey in 2013,” SETA, Siyaset Ekonomi ve Toplum Arast?rmalariVakfi.
(33) “Turkey in 2013,” SETA, Siyaset Ekonomi ve Toplum Arast?rmalariVakfi.
(34) Mithat Yurdukal, “Iraqi Oil Arrived Instead of Iranian Oil,” Milliyet, 29 January 2014, http://ekonomi.milliyet.com.tr/iran-petrolu-gitti-irak-petrolu/ekonomi/detay/1828775/default.htm.
(35) “Iran-Turkey Dialogue Most Important in the Region,” 27 November 2013.
(36) Yazicioglu, 7 November 2013.
(37) Yazicioglu, 7 November 2013.