Iran, Turkey and Their Position in New Political Structure of Middle East

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Elyas Vahedi
Expert on Turkey and Caucasus Affairs

The recent visit to Turkey by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took place in response to a previous visit to Iran by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in early 2014. The reciprocal visits reduced the diplomatic stagnation in the two countries’ relations and caused a thaw in mutual ties between Tehran and Ankara. Following the establishment of the new Iranian administration, which was accompanied with clear signs of a change in Iran’s foreign policy approaches, Turkish statesmen welcomed Iran’s developments and did their best to make the most of this opportunity.

Turkey’s increased willingness to improve relations with Iran and promote bilateral ties comes at a time that Ankara needs Iran’s assistance under the current political conditions in Syria and Iraq and also needs Tehran’s support for the resolution of certain regional issues such as the current situation in Egypt. Turkey has different viewpoints on these issues compared to Saudi Arabia, but Ankara believes that its positions are closer to Tehran. This state of affairs clearly proves that the incumbent Turkish politicians are trying to further strengthen relations with Iran as a result of their profound understanding of Iran’s conditions and also because they predict Iran’s regional influence to greatly increase in future. Presence of about 10 key members of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s cabinet in the delegation that visited Turkey and holding a session of the two countries’ joint economic commission or joint cabinet (which has been described by Turkish analysts as high strategic council) shows that Iran has also taken a positive approach to efforts made by Turks to get closer to Iran. The government of Turkey had previously taken advantage of joint cabinet sessions in its diplomatic relations with other countries during past years. Although this experience was not successful in Turkey’s relations with Syria and Iraq, there is hope that future outlook for cooperation between Iran and Turkey would be better than the other two cases. This is true because Iran’s conditions are totally different from Syria or Iraq and on the contrary of those governments, Iran, like Turkey, has been a major player in regional developments and in many cases it has even initiated certain regional political games.

Characteristics of new political structure in the region

In view of the ongoing situation in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, and also taking into account the changes that have come about in Iran’s foreign policy following the election of the country’s new president and in view of the stable conditions in Turkey following recent elections of local councils and parliaments, one may claim that the entire region of Middle East and certain peripheral areas including North Africa are moving toward a new kind of political structure. In this new structure, the role of regional powers, especially Iran and Turkey, will most probably increase in parallel to declining influence and role of transregional forces, especially the United States. Many analysts have confirmed that the United States has decided to reduce its direct presence and role in the Middle East and pay more attention to other strategic regions, especially Asia-Pacific region. Under these circumstances, there is no doubt that the power and influence of Iran and Turkey will continue to rise in the region. As a result, these two countries have decided to further boost their power through interaction and synergism instead of competing with each other for gaining new spheres of influence in the region. Of course, the region is not devoid of other rivals. Some other regional players such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the military government in Egypt will be dissatisfied with increasing power of Iran and Turkey, especially when these two regional powers decide to work together and attract some other regional players such as Qatar.

In the new political structure of the Middle East, which gradually came into being following revolutions in Arab countries and its signs are gradually more visible after three years of turmoil and unrest, both the interaction and confrontation among regional players is relative and there are rarely absolute hostilities or friendships among countries in the region. For example, in spite of sharing many basic and important viewpoints, Turkey and Iran have also basic differences in other instances, including the situation in Syria. Regional duets like Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, Iran and Egypt and so froth are engaged in political interactions while having different and confronting viewpoints on certain issues as well. However, in a relative division among regional countries, one may claim that a regional axis comprising Iran, Syria, the central government in Iraq and the Lebanese resistance movement, Hezbollah, is currently confronting another important axis which includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Western countries present in the region. A country like Turkey, which was previously closer to Arab and Western axis, is now pursuing a more moderate policy somewhere between these two axes and is even inclined to boost cooperation with Iran.

This change in regional equations has come at a time that the United States and European countries are trying to reduce their differences with Iran and if those efforts prove positive, Turkey will have more latitude to get even closer to Iran. At present, in addition to certain political positions taken by Ankara, Turkey has also tactical differences with the Islamic Republic. On the other hand, when it comes to foreign relations and bilateral cooperation, Turkey is facing great difficulties for improving its economic relations with Iran as a result of sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic by Western states. In the meantime, Israel is very concerned about these changes in regional equations despite the fact that Tel Aviv considers itself as the main winner of the Syria war. Another development which has increased Israel’s concern is that the change in regional equations has been accompanied with efforts that are aimed to mend the fences between Iran and the United States and also increase cooperation between Turkey and Iran. This is why Israel has been taking hasty steps to improve relations and reduce tensions with Turkey.

It is clear from official statements made by authorities in Iran and Turkey that the two countries are bent on further expansion of cooperation and development of bilateral and regional relations. Erdogan’s stern criticism of the West’s sanctions against Iran, which have restricted cooperation between Iran and Turkish companies, and remarks made by Cevdet Yılmaz, Turkey’s minister of development, Fikri Işık, Turkey’s minister of science, industries and technology, and other Turkish officials in support of further development of their countries’ relations with Iran on the eve of the Iranian president’s recent trip to Turkey, clearly proved the willingness of Turks to boost cooperation with Iran. More important, however, was the remarks by President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Hassan Rouhani in a press conference before he left Tehran for Ankara. In his remarks, Rouhani likened close relations between Iran and Turkey to connecting the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. In this way, he clearly demonstrated the Islamic Republic of Iran’s openness for increasing cooperation with Turkey over a host of regional issues.

At present, in view of the existing conditions and taking into account the golden opportunities that lay ahead of Iran and Turkey, the two countries need to form a strategic alliance in order to boost future cooperation. In this way, the future outlook for their relations will not be marred by differences over tactical views related to bilateral ties. Now that relations between Iran and Turkey are warm and cordial, they should think of ways to solve probable differences if new tensions arise between Tehran Ankara. Deepening of mutual relations and interactions, more focus on the largely ignored field of cultural cooperation, and adapting the two countries’ economic and social structures for the facilitation of bilateral cooperation are basic requisites for further development of all-out relations between Iran and Turkey.

Key Words: Iran, Turkey, New Political Structure of Middle East, Hassan Rouhani, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vahedi

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*Photo Credit: ISNA

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