Syria Crisis and Tension in Iran's Relations with Turkey

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ali Omidi
Assistant Professor of International Relations, University of Isfahan-Iran

After Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party won the power in the country through elections in 2002, politicians in Turkey came up with a new concept in politics which they called “Neo-Ottomanism.” The gist of this concept is attaching balanced and even-handed importance to Ankara’s political, economic, cultural, and historical relations with Muslim nations as well as the countries in the Balkans, Caucasus, Central Asia, Arabs and Europeans. Since that time, the political and economic relations between Iran and Turkey have greatly expanded.

As a result, from 2000 to 2009, the volume of bilateral trade between Iran and Turkey had increased by one billion US dollars per annum. According to Iran's ambassador to Ankara, the figure had reached 20 billion dollars by the end of 2012 and was projected to hit 30 billion dollars in 10 years. However, after the inception of the crisis in Syria, the growing trend of relations between Tehran and Ankara has practically slowed down. There have been five major reasons for the current tension in relations which include the crisis in Syria, deployment of NATO missile shield systems in Turkey, Iran's nuclear energy program, misuse of trade relations with Iran by Turks, and most importantly, the agreement and alignment of Ankara with the new political order in the Middle East on the basis of the US-sponsored model. These factors have so far given rise to various negative developments in bilateral relations; the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cancelled a scheduled visit to Turkey; a meeting between Iran and the P5+1 group – including the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China plus Germany – in the Turkish port city of Istanbul was called off; the two countries’ media reported arguments between their foreign ministers; and finally, trilateral consultations among Egypt, Turkey and Iran on Syria were aborted before reaching desirable outcome.

First of all, Turkey’s full support for the Syrian armed opposition that is fighting against the President Bashar al-Assad’s government as well as Ankara’s backing for all kinds of economic and political pressures against the Syrian government since the middle of 2011, has caused Turkey to take sides with Qatar and Saudi Arabia as the main axis seeking regime change in Syria.

In doing this, instead of playing an effective part in creating regional balance, Turkey has been trying to play a leading part in relation to political developments in the Middle East. Turkey believes that the wave of the Arab Spring has reached Damascus. On the other hand, Turkish government considers itself a successful model which has managed to combine secularism, democracy, Islam and economy in an effective way, and believes that the same model can be applied to Syria. Before the beginning of developments in Syria, analysts believed that Tehran and Ankara followed the same line of thinking, though with small differences in viewpoints and tactics. The developments in Syria, however, have caused tension between the two countries. Contrary to Turkey, Iran believes that the ongoing crisis in Syria is a strategy pursued by the West to tighten the noose around Tehran and the entire anti-Israel resistance axis. Iran also believes that the West is pursuing that strategy, unfortunately, through Muslim nations, pitting them against one another. It is not acceptable for Iran that while Israel is massacring the Palestinian people in Gaza, Muslim resources be used as a tool to spread fratricide in the Muslim world.

Another challenge in relations between Iran and Turkey is the deployment of NATO’s missile shield system along Turkey’s border with Syria. This radar system helps to create a powerful defensive barrier which can protect all the member states of the NATO and Israel against any possible attack by the middle- and long-range missiles fired from Iran. In late 2012, Turkey asked the NATO to deploy those missiles on its soil under the pretext of protecting Ankara against possible attacks by the Syrian Scud missiles. NATO immediately granted Turkey’s request. Tehran believes that the anti-missile radar system is a plot hatched by the United States and Israel, arguing that its main goal is to protect Israel’s facilities and the United States’ regional bases against retaliatory attacks by Iran if and when its nuclear facilities come under attack by Israel or the United States. Iran has threatened that if attacked, the Turkish radar system will be its first target in a retaliatory response.

Iran's nuclear program is also another challenge which has overshadowed Iran's relations with Turkey. Although Ankara has tried to keep a balance between the West’s demands and those of Iran in the nuclear case, due to major structural relations with the West, Ankara’s policy has been extremely cautious while Iran actually expected much more from Turkey. Perhaps, some Turkish strategists believe that a nuclear Iran – even without a nuclear weapon – will influence strategic relations not only in the Middle East, but also in relation to Russia, Balkans, and in the Aegean Sea.

These factors have been probably influencing Turkey’s efforts to mediate between Iran and the United States in the nuclear case. As relations between Iran and Turkey became tenser as a result of the developments in Syria, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who heads Iran Majlis (parliament) Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, was the first official to announce that due to Turkey’s positions on Syria, the meeting between the P5+1 group and Iran, which had been scheduled to be held in Istanbul in January 2013, had been called off. Iran believes that in view of the position that Turkey has adopted with regard to Syria, the country has lost its credit as an impartial player to host such negotiations.

Meanwhile, Turkey has been always trying to make the most of the existing differences between the West and Iran to boost its foreign trade. On the one hand, Turkey tries to move within the framework of the sanctions that the United Nations Security Council has imposed against Iran while, on the other hand, it is trying to appear as a mediator which is trying to solve some of the problems that Iran is facing as a result of sanctions and, of course, reap its own benefits as interlocutor. In line with the United States request, Turkey is planning to reduce the imports of Iranian oil and natural gas. At the same time, Ankara is pressuring Iran to sell its oil and gas to Turkey at a lower price compared to international prices.

The current situation of international sanctions against Iran has provided Turkey’s statesmen with the best opportunity to force Turkish-made goods on Iran. On the other hand, Ankara is reaping huge benefits from monetary and banking sanctions against Tehran. Interestingly, Turkey’s behavior is not unprecedented as Turkish statesmen treated Iran in a similar manner during its war with Iraq. Iran, for its turn, did not expect Turkish statesmen to pursue their own trade goals under these dire conditions.

Perhaps the most important challenge in Iran's relations with Turkey is Ankara’s effort to get attuned to the United States policies and follow Washington’s footsteps in creating a new order in the Middle East, which will only serve the mega interests of the Western states. Iran maintains that according to constructivist ideas, the West is trying to differentiate between Iran's Islamism and that of Turkey. The Turkish Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, willingly or unwillingly, considers his own political model as an example of an Islamist government which can get along with the Western modernism while being a counterweight for Iran's model of Islamism. The government of Prime Minister Erdogan is promoting this model as a guide and role model for other Islamist forces in other Muslim countries which have been already touched by the wave of changes in the Arab world.

In addition, the West, especially the United States, prefers the Turkish model of Islamism, which emphasizes on the need to interact with the West, over the Islamic Republic of Iran's model which underlines the need to confront the West. They see the Turkish model as being more compatible with and less dangerous to their interests. Perhaps, this is a new version of the “Greater Middle East” plan which had been already proposed by the former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In the meantime, Iran believes that the main goal of the real Islamist forces should be achieving true political independence, getting rid of the West’s hegemonic domination and proving grandeur of the Muslims to the world, not compromising with the West to the detriment of Muslim nations.

In conclusion, all the above-mentioned factors have joined hands in order to overcast bilateral relations between two neighboring countries and the intensity of tension is apparently increasing as time goes by. The reality on the ground is that the political and trade restrictions imposed on Iran by the West have left Tehran with few other options for the promotion of its foreign trade. However, the art of politics is not to give in to hardships and do not let such realities dissuade diplomats from making every effort to reduce tensions. In spite of Iran's complaints of Turkey, the bonds between two countries are so strong that they will not be affected by such factors in an irreversible manner. There is no doubt that common interests between the two countries are much more significant than such differences. However, if both countries do not take serious steps to reduce tension, it will leave its negative effect on the two countries’ relations in the long run.

Key Words: Syria Crisis, Iran, Turkey, Neo-Ottomanism, NATO Missile Shield, Nuclear Program, New Middle East, Islamism, Omidi

More By Ali Omidi:

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*Understanding Iran's Perception of Syrian Turbulence:

*Is it Morally Legitimate for Israel to Address the Iranian Nuclear Issue?:

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