In recent days, Turkey’s relationship with Tehran has hit rock-bottom, principally as a consequence of its position on the Syrian crisis conflicting with Iran’s, which backs President Bashar al-Assad and accuses Turkey of having Syrian blood on its hands.
Meanwhile, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has relocated militants from the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq to a camp on the Turkish-Iranian border, from where it is launching attacks against targets in Turkey, apparently with Tehran’s support.
Historically, Turkey’s relationship with Iran has been dominated by long periods of antipathy, interspersed with shorter periods of reconciliation. During the 1980s and 1990s diplomatic ties were particularly tense. Iran were frequently accused by Turkish governments of supporting the PKK, while Iran’s mullahs strongly disapproved of Turkey’s warm ties with Israel, accusing Turkey of being involved in Israeli projects and groups aimed at undermining their leadership.
But 2002 marked an upturn in Iranian-Turkish relations. In June that year, then-President of Turkey Ahmet Necdet Sezer visited Iran with a large delegation of businesspeople. This visit started a thaw in relations, which became much more cordial when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. The AKP felt more kinship towards Turkey’s neighbors in the Middle Eastern region than the previous secular elite had. This position was welcomed by Tehran, and led to a significant decrease in the secular-Islamic ideological tensions that had often led to heated accusations between Iranian and Turkish politicians in the past. Yet throughout both the good and bad times, they have remained regional rivals.
Business has been the driving force in the Turkey-Iran rapprochement, with recent statistics showing that bilateral trade increased from $1.25 billion in 2002 to $16.05 billion in 2011, although very much to the benefit of Iran, due to Turkey’s purchase of Iranian oil and gas. Indeed, Iran was the biggest exporter of crude oil to Turkey in 2011. Turkey has benefited from millions of Iranian tourists, and there has been a big increase in trade in the border regions, where Iran has eased previous restrictions. Tabriz, in the north of Iran, now hosts the filming of hundreds of Turkish movies.
However, while Turkish businesspeople are keen to increase exports further, they have faced red tape in the form of high tariff rates on many goods.
Although numerous rounds of negotiations have taken place, no breakthrough has been made. Iranian businesses have been welcomed in Turkey, which has given them a gateway to Europe and offered the Iranian economy, in light of international sanctions, a much-needed boost. However, these increasingly fruitful economic ties have not been welcomed by the US, which in the past has put a stop to Iran’s efforts to build close economic ties with other countries -- such as the UAE. However, in this case, Turkey has refused to budge.
When Turkey tied to block additional sanctions against Iran, following the failure of a fuel swap deal that Turkey had been leading with Brazil, many in the West accused Ankara of an “axis shift,” of turning its back on its traditional allies. Turkey’s strategy has never been to turn its back on the West. Turkey’s efforts vis-à-vis Iran have been more about Turkey consolidating its role as a powerful regional player, being far better placed than the West to deal with this neighborhood, and for the countries of the Middle Eastern region to view Turkey as a heavyweight player they can count on. In fact Turkey has wanted to be a “conduit” between the West and the Muslim world.
According to historian Gareth Jenkins, the increased cooperation between Iran and Turkey under the AKP, beyond pragmatic economic ties, “appears merely to have created another arena for competition.” Under the previous Turkish leadership, the suspicion with which the secular Turkish establishment -- particularly the once-influential Turkish military -- regarded Iran was an obstacle to sustained bilateral cooperation between the two countries. Yet the election of the AKP has replaced the secular/Islamist divide with a Sunni/Shia one. This has never been so evident as following the Arab Spring, when we have seen very clearly the major policy gap between the two countries in terms of the Middle East.
Balancing relations between the West and Iran has been difficult, and Turkey’s multi-vector foreign policy agenda will likely continue to needle Iran and cause tensions between the two nations. However, while Iran may do a lot of barking and threatening, Iran needs Turkey. We saw this during the recent visit of Iran’s foreign minister to Ankara, when he asked Turkey to help secure the release of some 48 Iranian pilgrims recently taken hostage by Syrian opposition rebels, with whom Turkey has links. Turkey has allowed Iran to keep its economy afloat, despite economic sanctions, and given Iran a platform, using its own political clout, from which to project itself. Without Turkey, Tehran is left with only Russia and China. It seems to me that, overall, the political capital that Turkey has spent on Iran has brought Turkey very little. Rather, Iran has used Turkey’s somewhat naïve approach to try and further its own regional role. This needs to change.
Amanda Paul is a writer for Today’s Zaman, where this article was published on August 12, 2012