Turkish-Iran Relations: Old Rivals or New Best Friends?

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Many in the West are increasingly concerned about a Turkish-Iranian alliance against the US and Israel. However the two countries, despite their increasingly closer political and economic ties, compete over the leading position in the Middle East and for the favor of the Arab masses. For the moment the competition is materializing in pro-Palestinian endeavors like the so called “freedom flotillas” and fiery speeches against Israel by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

On June 29, 2010, Ankara, in a first sign of frustration, called on Iran to return “as soon as possible” to the negotiating table over a nuclear fuel swap deal. According to a senior Turkish diplomat, Turkey voted against tougher UN sanctions under the condition that Iran would engage itself in talks on its controversial nuclear program. However, on June 28, 2010 Ahmadinejad announced that any negotiations will be postponed until late August in order to “punish” Western powers. Tehran left it unclear when and if it will continue to talk with Brazil and Turkey, its two allies.

On Wednesday, June 9th, 2010, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1929, strengthening the sanctions regime against Iran’s nuclear program. Turkey, a non-permanent member of the UNSC voted against the resolution as did Brazil. Erdogan explained later that the “no” vote was a matter of Turkish “honor.” Erdogan repeatedly spoke out in favor of the Iranian nuclear program and insisted that the international crisis be resolved by means of dialogue only.

Arabic commentators note a new alliance or axis of cooperation and solidarity among Turkey, Iran and Syria which concerns the West. Other commentators fear that Turkey, after its failed attempt to stop tougher sanctions through negotiations was thwarted by the West, could help Iran circumvent sanctions by smuggling banned freight over the common border.

On May 17, 2010, Turkey and Brazil made a diplomatic initiative to solve the Iran crises. The two countries reached an agreement with Iran according to which the latter would ship 1,200 kilograms of low enriched uranium (LEU), roughly half of its stock, to Turkey and would receive 120 kilo of 20 percent enriched uranium in form of fuel rods in exchange. Erdogan considered this deal a breakthrough in stalemated negotiations, making tougher sanctions unnecessary.

The agreement does not erase many Western countries’ concern that Iran’s nuclear program has military dimensions. The agreed swap deal would leave Iran enough enriched uranium for a “breakout capacity.” Iran also announced that it would continue to enrich high grade uranium in defiance of three sets of UN sanctions. Western countries suspect that Iran is using the swap agreement with Turkey and Brazil in order to gain time and avoiding stronger sanctions in the UN Security Council.

In 2009, Turkey became a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).[11] Prime Minister Erdogan has repeatedly played down the potential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons development program. Turkey’s military, political and economic relations with Iran are growing as Erdogan defends Iran’s nuclear program and declared that it is for peaceful purposes.

On March 5, 2010, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expressed satisfaction over increasing bilateral ties between Turkey and Iran. Turkey attaches high importance to strong relations with Iran and is eager to have consultation with Iran about regional and international developments, President Gul said. He further called for deepening brotherly ties between the two countries in different fields and said Turkey defends Iran’s rights in all international communities.

Turkey, which has strengthened its ties with Iran since the AKP took power in Ankara, has offered to be a mediator to solve the dispute between the Islamic Republic and the West over Iran’s nuclear program. However analysts say that Turkey has so far failed to deliver the strong message the West was expecting of it by appearing too sympathetic towards Iran. Tehran today is cooperating with Ankara on a military and an intelligence level in its fight against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). Experts say that the Turkish government’s Islamic roots are seen as a “driving force behind its efforts to avoid confrontation over Iran”.

After Ahmadinejad’s disputed presidential re-election in June 2009, Erdogan and his ally, President Abdullah Gul were among the first foreign leaders to make congratulatory phone calls, ignoring the mass protests and concerns of Western leaders over the result’s legitimacy. Erdogan justified the move as a “necessity of bilateral relations.”

In February 2010, Turkey again praised Iran’s presidential elections despite ongoing unrest. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reiterated Turkey’s position vis-a-vis the nuclear standoff with Iran by saying that the dispute should be resolved through dialogue by using diplomatic means instead of tough tension and threats.

Economic Relations

Turkey is positioning itself as a major transit hub hosting various oil and gas pipelines. Erdogan has noted that trade between Iran and Turkey surpassed $10 billion last year and stated that the two countries are determined to increase it to $30 billion. Turkey and Iran plan to set up a joint industrial zone in a border area. On February 3, 2010, Turkish and Iranian officials met at the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) meeting, where Turkish State Minister Cevdet Yilmaz said Turkey to open a “golden age” in Turkish-Iranian relations. He further stated that Turkey and Iran were two “friend and brother” countries.

Iran supplies Turkey through a pipeline carrying an average volume of 18-25 million cubic meters of gas per day. Ankara fears that sanctions would endanger its supply of gas, some 10 billion cubic meters per year, or close to one third of its total annual gas supply.

On March 2, 2010, Turkey and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding boosting industrial and commercial relations between the two countries. Turkish Industry and Trade Minister Nihat Ergun and Iranian Minister of Industries and Mining Ali Akbar Mehrabian, who met in Tehran for the Development Eight Muslim countries (D-8, includes Iran, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey), signed the document.[25] Turkey and Iran are determined to strengthen and diversify their bilateral relations.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in February 2010 said: “Opening new phases in the South Pars Natural Gas Fields, solving issues regarding a sales agreement and the establishment of a joint refinery are important projects.” Turkish State Minister Cevdet Yilmaz said: “Projects such as the transportation of Turkmen and Iranian natural gas to Europe over Turkey will bring our relations to a much higher level. We do attach great importance to our cooperation with Iran on this issue as well as to our cooperation in the Nabucco project.”

Iranian and Turkish authorities agreed to boost ties and conduct bilateral trade in their own currencies. Iran announced that it had already started to use Turkish currency in trade with its neighbor. Turkey has made the relevant legal arrangements. Iran is seeking ways to attract foreign investors to its energy sector to break economic sanctions imposed due to its controversial nuclear weapons development program.

Historical and Cultural Dimensions

Today’s Turkish-Iranian relations are shaped by the historic rivalry between the Ottoman and Persian empires of yore. The Ottoman Empire, from which modern Turkey evolved, controlled all the Central Asian Republics but was never able to move into Iran. This created the boundary between Sunni (Turks and Arabs) and Shia (Iran) Islam. The mistrust towards Iran among Arabs, Turks and other Muslim nations of the greater Middle East has always been there. During the Ottoman era, Iran and the Ottoman Empire couldn’t be allies, and couldn’t ensure any serious economic or political cooperation. To this day Turkey resents Iran’s meddling in the affairs of these nations.

Long-standing cultural and religious differences shape the relationship as well. The Turks are mostly Sunni Muslims, but Turkey includes a Shia minority that is widely viewed as “second class”.

Iran’s state religion is Shiite Islam and most of its people are ethnically Persian, but minorities of various ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds number in the millions, including ethnic Kurds, Baluchis, and the largest ethnic minority, the Azeris. Azeris, comprising a quarter of Iran’s population, are ethnically Turkish and their language is a Turkish dialect. Iran and Turkey share a common problem with their Kurdish minorities, although this constitutes more of a problem for Turkey than for Iran. Turkey’s standpoints are being completely opposite to revolutionary Iran in almost all fields. Turkey has been emerging as a new role model for many Iranians.

While both countries are Muslim, Turkey has had a long tradition of a secular and democratic political system. The changes that took place in Turkey in recent years under the AKP government have not affected its economic policies, which remained free market oriented. By contrast, Iran is a theocratic state with aspirations of regional hegemony and an active supporter of terrorism.