Iran-Turkey Cooperation Prerequisite to Protecting Regional Sovereign Borders

Monday, March 30, 2015

Hossein Mofidi Ahmadi, Ph.D. in International Relations &
Visiting Researcher at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies

Protecting sovereign borders and nation-states in the Middle East region should be considered as the most important regional strategy pursued by Iran and Turkey. At the same time, it is also among the most important factors that brings the two neighbors closer together. In the meantime, due to their position in nation-state building process and also because of their changing understanding of mutual threat, Iran and Turkey are the most important and legitimate regional powers to join hands for the protection of regional nation-state systems.

There is a viewpoint that has its own supporters, based on which rivalries among big regional powers, including Iran and Turkey, with the goal of expanding their sphere of influence and promoting their favorite institutions in post-Arab Spring era, will work with other factors to finally lead to collapse of the existing nation-state systems in the region. Such rivalries will also increase tensions in Iran-Turkey relations. In reality, however, due to geopolitical, geocultural, and geoeconomic reasons, protection of sovereign borders will emerge as the most important regional strategy followed by Iran and Turkey and also one of the most important factors that will cause more closeness between the two countries. In the meantime, special advantages of these two countries will turn them into the most prominent agents for the protection of the existing nation-state systems in the region.

From geopolitical angle, Iran and Turkey are both concerned about changing geographical borders in the region, including through increased territorial control of the ISIS in Iraq and Syria, establishment of a new nation-state in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and creation of three independent Kurdish, Sunni and Alawite political entities in Syria. In Turkey, results of an opinion poll conducted by the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) in September and October 2013, showed that the Turkish people perceived establishment of a Kurdish government in southern parts of Turkey as the greatest threat posed to the country. This issue clearly shows the concern in the country’s public opinion about the impact of regional developments on Turkey, including the ongoing battle between Kurds and the ISIS terrorists, which has increased popularity of separatist Kurdish groups. In the meantime, more than half of the Turkey’s elites opined in the same poll that the biggest threat to Turkey was domination of radical Islamist militants over Syria. The apprehension was a sign of the concern that Turkey’s elites have about further expansion of the ISIS’ territory and subsequent instability along the southern frontiers of their country.

Iran, on the one hand, is well aware that any change in geographical borders of the region will be at odds with its national interests. The Islamic Republic supports territorial integrity of Iraq and understands that establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, or further strengthening of the ISIS in its western neighbor, will not only give rise to security risks within Iran's borders, but also cause a drastic reduction of Iran's influence in Iraq. On the other hand, Iran is aware that the collapse of the existing nation-state in Syria and establishment of a new order in the country along ethnic lines will greatly weaken the country’s Alawite population in the long run.

From a geocultural perspective, both Iran and Turkey believe that strengthening of ideas and institutions that have their root in Salafist and jihadist ways of thinking and the focus on the revival of the Islamic caliphate will bring about the fall of nation-state systems in the region.

Also, from a geoeconomic viewpoint, any change in sovereign borders in the region will pose great risks to economic opportunities as well as macroeconomic and trade strategies of both countries. The spreading presence of the ISIS has already caused disruption in economic benefits of trade between Iran and Turkey, on the one hand, and Iraq, on the other. At the same time, Turkey’s approach to Iraqi Kurdistan Region is more of an economic nature and Ankara is looking for an opportunity to turn the Kurdistan region into part of its own economic system in order to bolster security of energy flow to Turkey. Therefore, strengthening of sovereign borders set by the ISIS will threaten those strategic relations. At the same time, strengthening of the ISIS will make inevitable Turkey’s direct intervention, especially to protect the region’s energy resources, and will securitize Turkey’s relations with Kurdistan region while increasing the cost of maintaining those relations. When it comes to large-scale energy strategies, Iran believes that realization of its long-term plan to transfer energy to Europe is hinged on the existence and stability of nation-state systems in Iraq and Syria. Turkey, on the other hand, believes that stability within the existing sovereign borders is requisite for the realization of Ankara’s strategy to turn into a major energy hub in the region.

Now, let’s see why Iran and Turkey are the most important and the most legitimate regional powers to cooperate for the protection of nation-states systems in the region. The first reason is relative stability of governments in both Iran and Turkey. As Graham E. Fuller, American author and political analyst, wrote on his official website on January 3, 2015, Iran and Turkey are the sole real governments enjoying popular legitimacy in the region. In fact, the two countries have been the most successful regional states in the process of nation-state building. Despite all the existing rivalries between the two countries for the promotion of their favorite institutions in the region, this issue will serve as a factor to foster cooperation between them for the protection of sovereign and geographical borders in the region.

The second reason is the changing understanding of threat on the part of Turkey after the Justice and Development Party came to power in the country. This trend has been further strengthened after the election of a moderate administration in Iran. The roots of this change in understanding of threat should be sought in the efforts made by the two countries’ decision-makers to desecuritize Iran-Turkey relations. A comparison between the impact of the Arab Spring on Iran-Turkey relations, on the one hand, and on Iran-Saudi relations, on the other hand, will provide good evidence to the effect of the two aforesaid reasons. It means that although Iran and Turkey had their own interpretations of the Arab Spring developments, especially with regard to Syria, and those different interpretations caused tensions in bilateral relations, the scope of those tensions never reached an uncontrollable level. On the contrary, different interpretations of the same developments on the part of Iran and Saudi Arabia gave birth to serious differences and contentions between the two countries.

Although Iran and Turkey have different views on the nature of suitable institutions, which can promote a new regional order following the Arab Spring developments, both countries are well aware that establishment of regional systems that would be close to their viewpoints would hinge on the protection of the existing nation-states as well as regional stability and security. In the meantime, both countries know that weakening and destruction of human, territorial, and logistic resources of terrorist groups in the region, including the ISIS, is a must. However, both of them are also aware that the final success of any military measure to fight these groups would depend on doing away with psychological factors that have paved the way for their growth and those factors are rooted in the absence of broad-base nation-state systems in the region.

Since Iran's and Turkey’s strategies seek to protect nation-state systems in the region and because both countries enjoy such advantages as superior position in nation-state building process, and also share a change in the understanding of bilateral threat, cooperation between Tehran and Ankara is necessary condition for the protection of sovereign borders in the region. By making the most of these advantages, the two countries will be able to not only improve and expand bilateral ties, but also help with the creation of broad-based governments in the region, which would represent various ideological, ethnic, and religious groups in their countries on a higher level. Such an interaction can emerge as a role model for intraregional cooperation and reduce grounds for intervention of foreign transregional powers in the internal affairs of regional countries.

Key Words: Iran-Turkey Cooperation, Regional Borders, Middle East, Kurdish Groups, ISIS Terrorists, Mofidi Ahmadi

More By Hossein Mofidi Ahmadi:

*Turkey’s Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring: An Identity-Based Approach:

*Fighting ISIS, an Opportunity for Iran-Turkey to Get Close:

*Photo Credit: Fars News Agency

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