Turkey’s Iran Quandary
Taking a step back and looking at the Turkish-Iranian relationship, it strikes me that it is following a similar pattern to the one Turkey had with Syria until 2011. The Turkish relationship with Syria was based largely on economic ties, and Ankara played down any political factors that might cause tension in the name of trade and economic growth. When Bashar al-Assad’s murderous behavior became more pronounced as the Syrian civil war heated up, Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu operated on a mistaken assumption that they could softly manage the problem and convince Assad to change his ways.
They presumed that in the same way that they saw economic growth and trade as a factor outweighing everything else, Assad would view things the same way. Assad had far larger and more pressing concerns, however, and after promising to Davutoğlu’s face not to kill civilians, he promptly continued his massacring of Syrians, which led Erdoğan to blow a gasket after feeling personally betrayed and adopt a policy of getting rid of Assad at any cost. This in turn caused the rapid downward spiral of Turkish foreign policy, which has largely collapsed due to the government’s Syria policy – a policy that was neither well thought out or well planned, and one which the Turkish government concocted on the fly. It chose to ignore all sorts of warning signs and then turned on a dime, all to devastating effect.
The variables with Iran are different, but the basic dynamic is similar. Turkey has cultivated a friendly and cordial relationship with Iran despite a host of structural reasons to be wary of its erstwhile regional rival and in the face of a coordinated Western effort to keep Iran isolated until concerns over Iran’s nuclear program are resolved. Turkey has made a concerted effort to improve ties with Iran for economic reasons, and in fact the two countries activated a deal last month to reduce trade tariffs with a stated objective of raising annual bilateral trade to $30 billion by the end of 2015, which would double the trade volume from 2013.
I have written in the past about the power imbalance between the two due to Turkey’s over reliance on Iranian oil and gas, which is one of the primary reasons Turkey was such a willing partner in helping Iran evade sanctions by swapping gold for gas. The desire to boost commercial trade with Iran has only grown with the loss of Syria as a trade conduit, and thus Turkey has pressed forward on working to expand economic ties with Iran despite an effort among its NATO partners to isolate Tehran economically.
Like with Syria, the rial signs in Ankara’s eyes have blinded it to some larger geopolitical truths. Turkey and Iran have a shared interest in stamping out the threat from ISIL, and they have each played a big role in keeping Hamas alive and boosting its standing in relation to the Palestinian Authority, but otherwise they are operating at cross-purposes. While Erdoğan has stated his conviction that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power is for civilian purposes only, Turkey has a longstanding policy of opposition to an Iranian nuclear bomb. Turkey and Iran are on opposite sides of the ledger in the struggle for hegemony in the region, with Iran wanting to limit the influence of a connected Sunni bloc and Turkey teaming with Qatar to boost Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamist movements.
As a NATO member and EU aspirant, Turkey is ostensibly in the Western camp while Iran is decidedly not. On Syria and Iraq, which have been the two most pressing hot spots in the region, Iran has strongly backed both Assad and Nuri al-Maliki, while Turkey has turned a blind eye for two years to groups like ISIL all in the name of ending Assad’s rule and clashed with Maliki repeatedly and consistently while he was at the helm in Baghdad. In short, you have two populous non-Arab states with the largest militaries in the region who differ on nearly every policy issue of consequence and who have historically each tried to control the Middle East, and yet Turkey has treated Iran with all due deference.
I have no insider insights into the status of the P5+1 talks with Iran, but given the frantic NATO/EU focus on Ukraine and the emergent ISIL problem occupying the White House’s attention, this would be the perfect time for a revisionist state such as Iran to take advantage of the chaos and take a harder line in talks or restart elements of its nuclear program. The spotlight at the moment is elsewhere, and given the previous extension of the deadline following the interim Geneva agreement, Iran would not be out of line in assuming that the U.S.’s priority is to get a deal even if it means letting up on issues such as enrichment.
The upshot of this is that with other foreign policy problems eclipsing Iran’s nuclear program and an improved economic situation following the loosening of sanctions, Iran’s position is improving, which should worry Turkey deeply in a wider regional context. There is no question that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu both pine for the days of Ottoman power and would like to restore Turkey to what they see as its rightful role as regional leader, and a stronger Iran is not something that will help this project.
Turkey’s Iran policy up until now has been assume, like it did with Syria, that it can ignore the problems on the horizon and simply manage an ascendant Iran on its own. As with Syria, this has the potential to blow up in Ankara’s face in a big way, particularly once Iran no longer needs Turkey as an escape hatch out of its economic isolation. Whereas Turkey is reliant on Iran for its energy needs because it has no other viable suppliers yet, Iran is only reliant on Turkish capital and investment so long as it is under sanctions. Ankara’s assumption that Iran is always going to be a relatively friendly and cooperative neighbor flies in the face of the way regional powers operate, particularly when there is a power vacuum in the region in question.
Erdoğan and Davutoğlu thought that they could manage Assad and that they could ignore ISIL outright, and that both problems would eventually melt away. They were wrong on both counts, and if Turkey keeps on treating Iran with kid gloves rather than realizing the threat that a powerful Iran presents to Turkish interests, it is ultimately going to end up with yet another foreign policy problem that it could have fended off with some foresight earlier in the process.
This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.