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Iran-Turkey Relations: A Change for the Best, or Intensification of Conflicts

Monday, June 15, 2015

Masoud Rezaei
Ph.D. in International Relations &
Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies

There was a time when rivalry between the Ottoman and Safavid empires was the main index of political struggles in the Middle East. Today, the relationship between Iran and Turkey and the new strategic conditions in this region are still a focal point in discussions among regional analysts. Since Turkey and Iran do not pursue the same strategic goals in the Middle East, they are also following different political agendas as a result of which their interests sometimes conflict. Up to a few months ago, differences between the two countries were limited to the situations in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Nobody even imagined that Yemen would turn into a bone of contention between Tehran and Ankara too. Neither Iran has common border with Yemen, nor Turkey. This issue shows that new realities are coming to the surface across the region and the sphere of rivalry and conflict of interests between the two regional powers in the Middle East has further expanded.

As a result, and due to a number of issues, the current atmosphere between the two countries is prone to change, at least, in the next few months.

The first and most important issue is about the domestic situation in Turkey and the results of the recent parliamentary elections in that country. The election results show that the foreign policy of Turkey is in for a major change in its quality as a result of a possible shift in the political power. It should be noted that Turkey lacks significant historical background in its foreign policy in the region. Therefore, after any political party wins the elections and its favorite government takes office, we see a shift in Ankara’s position on the Middle East issues and the country does not follow a single principled foreign policy approach in this regard. On the other hand, lack of continuity in Turkey’s policy for getting close to Iran is certainly not of a strategic nature and is ephemeral just like the recent policy that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan adopted toward Yemen in favor of Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Erdogan moved fast to correct his anti-Iran remarks immediately after his visit to Tehran on April 7 and the friendly meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani. Following his meeting with Rouhani, he emphasized on the necessity of regional cooperation between the two countries. For this reason, when it comes to regional issues, the role played by Turkey cannot be compared to Iran and the Islamic Republic has the upper hand in view of its stable and continued strategy. The main reason for this issue is that Turkey’s approach to and willingness for dealing with regional issues is somehow new and developed in the past decade, but Iran has a historical background in terms of tackling regional issues and pursues its own strategy in this regard.

Therefore, the results of the recent parliamentary elections in Turkey may add another dimension to the conflicting positions of Ankara. In fact, after 13 years of absolute power, the ruling Justice and Development Party has lost its parliamentary majority. This situation will lead to the emergence of a coalition government or a minority government in Turkey, which may somehow modify Ankara’s foreign policy with regard to the Middle East. If this actually happens, it will have a major effect on two important developments that are of interest to Turkey: the intensity of Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, and the relationship of Turkey with Kurdish people living in the country as well as the Kurds in Syria. Therefore, the government in Ankara, like Washington, may opt for a policy according to which it would take smaller steps for the purpose of overthrowing Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The second issue is about relations between Iran and the West in the light of a possible final nuclear agreement between Iran and the West. Basically speaking, Turkey does not share the security concerns of Arab and Israel with regard to Iran's nuclear program. Although this may not affect the two countries’ political relations, but in economic terms, a final deal between Iran and the six world powers will be in Turkey’s favor and Ankara has constantly supported the nuclear program of Iran. However, in view of Turkey’s expectations in Syria and a possible turn in the United States policy toward Iran from containment to limited interaction, Turkey may be concerned about rapid growth and expansion of Iran's political influence in the region. Turkey is apparently worried that the removal of economic sanctions on Iran followed by increased mutual dependence between Iran and the West in political and economic matters, in addition to the show of Iran's skill in negotiating with the most powerful governments in the world, will all serve to boost Tehran’s political influence across the region. Such a situation will not only impart transregional legitimacy to Iran's axial role and playing power, but will also, and to some extent, marginalize Turkey’s role.

The third issue is related to Syria and the emergence of the Jaish al-Fatah jihadist group. This group is, actually, a coalition of opposition forces formed under the support of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which announced its existence on March 24, 2015. It managed only four days later to conquer the Syrian city of Idlib and has been able in less than two months to take the initiative in this province. The Idlib province has common border with Turkey and is Syria’s first line of defense for protecting its coastal regions in Latakia and Tartus provinces, which are home to the country’s Alawite population. Syria’s Alawites are considered the main source of support for Assad’s government and are source of spiritual and military backing for Damascus. Therefore, the fall of these provinces at the hands of the Takfiri terrorists cannot be acceptable to Iran and the resistance front. As a result, the recent developments in Idlib province have prompted the Syrian army to make a basic revision in its military strategy in consultation with Iran in order to get ready to face jihadist groups that are being supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the latest reports indicate that profound changes will take place on the ground in Syria war in the near future. This issue, in addition to huge political, security and economic investment by Turkey in Syria and a possible turn of events in favor of Iran will be potentially capable of initiating a new round of tensions in relations between Turkey and Iran.

Now, the main problem is about the impact that these issues will have on the quality of future relations between the two countries. One must wait and see whether these variables will simply intensify the rivalry between the two countries, or lead to more hostility between them.

Key Words: Iran, Turkey, Relations, Conflicts, Middle East, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Yemen, Hassan Rouhani, Jaish al-Fatah, Alawites, Rezaei

More By Masoud Rezaei:

*Egypt and "Democracy Dilemma": http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Egypt-and-Democracy-Dilemma-.htm

*Final Nuclear Deal and Iran-China Relations: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Final-Nuclear-Deal-and-Iran-China-Relations.htm

*The Resignation of Chuck Hagel and US Foreign Policy in Mideast: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/The-Resignation-of-Chuck-Hagel-and-US-Foreign-Policy-in-Mideast.htm

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