Challenges Facing Tehran-Ankara Ties: Will Davutoglu’s Dream Come True?

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Saeid Jafari
Expert on Middle East Issues

The current Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will most probably change his post for the higher position of presidency of Turkey in a few weeks. The question is what challenges Turkey is currently facing in relations with its most important neighbor, Iran?

1. Syria

Iranian analysts are more than willing to point out that Turkey has been so far following an erroneous strategy with regard to Syria and now that its officials have realized the mistaken nature of that strategy, they are insisting Iran to help them draw Ankara out of the Syria quagmire. However, a closer look at statements made by Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, will prove otherwise. They still continue to stress that the Syrian President Bashar Assad should step down, are still extending their support to those groups opposing the central government in Syria, and have done nothing to reestablish the diplomatic relations between Ankara and Damascus. At the same time, Iran has been offering its full support for Assad and after the Syrian government held the recent presidential election in the country, Tehran believes that the unrest in Syria is practically over. Therefore, Erdogan is facing a basic challenge with the Islamic Republic over the situation in Syria. Turkey has already invested a lot in all the efforts made to overthrow Assad, but that investment has so far failed to bear fruit. Russia and the United States, on the other hand, have apparently reached an agreement over a peaceful solution to Syria crisis. Meanwhile, the sudden breakout of the ongoing crisis in Iraq and the more serious threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has drawn more attention than before to the necessity of eradication of the threat posed by rapid spread of religious radicalism in the Middle East. All told, if Erdogan fails to make a major change to its policies toward Damascus, it will be very unlikely that Tehran and Ankara will be able to take a common stance on Syria.

2. The crisis in Iraq

Turkey was from the very beginning opposed to a US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the country’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein. Turkey’s opposition to the United States’ policy in Iraq became even more serious after a Shia government close to Tehran came to power in Baghdad. Erdogan never tried to establish cordial relations with the government of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. On the opposite, Ankara has good relations with the Sunni officials of its southern neighbor. As a result, Tariq al-Hashimi, the fugitive former deputy of Maliki, fled to Turkey and Erdogan has openly pointed out to Maliki that his opponents hold close relations with Turkey. At the same time, both in past and recent general elections of Iraq, Turkey has consistently supported the election of any candidate but Maliki. Meanwhile, Iran has been lending its strong support to the powerful Shia central government of Iraq and has been conducting frequent rounds of consultations with various Shia groups in Iraq in order to do all it can to protect the territorial integrity of Iraq. On the whole, the conflict of interests between Tehran and Ankara over Iraq is so serious that it would most probably prevent Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Turkey’s Erdogan from reaching a similar conclusion over their future policies toward Baghdad.

3. The issue of Kurds

The issue of Kurds was always considered as a strength in the bilateral relations between Tehran and Ankara and officials in both countries unwaveringly believed in the necessity to fight off independent seeking movements by Kurds in the region. Erdogan, however, has embarked on a big political gamble quite recently. Being fully aware of the high impact of Kurds’ votes in the forthcoming presidential elections in Turkey, he has lent support to independence seeking tendencies among the Iraqi Kurds. At the same time and as a result of analyses offered to him by the protagonist of his foreign policy, Davutoglu, Erdogan has reached the conclusion that by announcing support for the idea of the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq, he will become a trustworthy ally for the future government of the Iraqi Kurdistan. Apart from the high risk that this strategy entails, the decision made by the Turkish government on the Iraqi Kurds will once again pit Tehran and Ankara against each other. Therefore, in case the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan takes place in practice, it would cause serious tension in relations between the two neighboring countries. Of course, it should not be forgotten that the new developments in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and the possible onslaught by the ISIS against Kurdish regions of Iraq will led to considerable changes in the existing political equations. Perhaps, such a strategic miscalculation by the ISIS will unite all Iraqi groups, including Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds, and prompt them to join hands in fighting against the ISIS.

4. Finding a solution to Iran’s nuclear issue

Whether Ankara likes it or not, Iran is currently on the road to interaction with the West and these days, a final agreement over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear energy program seems to be more achievable than any time before. It goes without saying that as it was the case during Iran’s war with Iraq, international sanctions against Tehran have provided Ankara with many opportunities. A lot of those opportunities came about as smart, conservative and Islamist politicians were coming to office in Turkey. As a result of those opportunities, the country managed to do away with its three-digit inflation rate. At the same time and at the beginning of popular uprisings in Arab countries, Turkey’s model of Islamic government was introduced as a suitable model for Arab countries and as a model which can make way for Islam and democracy to coexist. Today, however, a smart politician and seasoned diplomat is president of the Islamic Republic and it is quite natural for him to decide to bypass mediators in favor of solving his country’s problems with other countries, which hold the key to the resolution of those problems. Adoption of this policy by Tehran blocks the way to profiteering efforts by other countries and Turkey will be no longer able to boost its international prestige by taking advantage of an unnecessary crisis between Iran and the West. Now, the question is will Erdogan be ready to enter into interaction with Iran considering the Islamic Republic’s new international standing and at a time that Iran enjoys more potential to play an effective role in the region?


Erdogan will enter the presidential palace in Çankaya district of Ankara at a time that he is facing serious challenges in the area of foreign policy. The Islamic Republic of Iran has totally changed compared to the time when he was prime minister of his country and Tehran is currently bent on playing its deserved role in regional and international developments. According to what has been already said about the above four issues, the two countries are expected to face basic challenges in their relations. And these challenges are sure to make it very difficult for Davutoglu to realize the goals of his policies in order to make his dreams come true. He, as the main theorist of Turkey’s foreign policy, has announced time and again that Iran and Turkey enjoy the same position among the Middle Eastern countries as France and Germany in Europe and, therefore, the quality of relations between these two regional players should be based on the convergence that constitutes the fundament of relations between Berlin and Paris. The aforesaid problems, however, clearly prove that this is more a lovely and beautiful dream than having anything to do with the realities on the ground. In the meantime, history tells us that the last time when the tenure of a prime minister in Turkey lasted for a long period of time and he finally left the post of premiership for the position of Turkey’s president was about a quarter of a century ago. However, in that case, the increased totalitarian tendencies of then Turkish president, Turgut Özal, as well as rampant economic and administrative corruption within the political system of this country, plunged the country into a management crisis, which ended in Özal’s death. Perhaps history wants to tell us that the rise of Ankara requires the fall of Tehran and vice versa.

Key Words: Tehran-Ankara Ties, Challenges, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Kurds, Iran's Nuclear Issue, Nouri Al-Maliki, Jafari

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