The Hectic Days of Iranian and Turkish Diplomats

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bahram Amir Ahmadian
Tehran University Professor & Eurasia Affairs Analyst

The agreement of the United States to the holding of P5+1 meeting - where five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and Iran are set to resume talks on Tehran’s nuclear programme – placed Turkey at the centre of regional attention once again. It was a few months that Ankara had kept silent on regional developments, which was mostly owing to its political divergence and difference of opinion from Tehran over the crisis in Syria. Some political experts maintained that Turkey is playing a role in regional developments which is indeed beyond its power and that engaging in all regional issues involves considerable costs for the Turkish government that it can really not afford.

The official visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Tehran, which was aimed at ensuring coordination and making the necessary arrangements for the upcoming meeting of P5+1 in Istanbul, the US agreement to the plan and finally the tacit acceptance of it by the Iranian diplomatic apparatus suggest a relative improvement of Tehran-Ankara relations. But Turkey’s hosting of the “Friends of Syria” meeting, declaration of support for the Syrian National Transitional Council as well as for the Opposition-affiliated Free Syrian Army has rendered the dilemma more complex. In the midst of these developments, it should be noted that the recent endorsement of a bill in the Turkish parliament reducing the minimum age for students to be eligible to enroll in the country’s religious schools was a piece of good news for the Islamic world.

Iran is pressing on with supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government as a strategic ally and a key player in the resistance front against the Israeli regime while Turkey is backing opponents of Assad. Needless to say, on this issue Ankara’s position conflicts with the interests of Tehran as the Islamic Republic insists upon the implementation of reforms in Syria and providing the Assad regime with the opportunity to advance its reform plans, an approach which is also shared by Russia and China.

Why Turkey is sponsoring the opponents of Assad is a tricky question that has a difficult answer. Turks believe that their country has a vast common order with Syria which Iran lacks. While the Sunni majority living in Syria do not have a share in power, Turkey, where the majority religion is Sunni Islam, regards itself as the heir to the Ottoman Empire and thus the big brother of Arab countries situated in the ancient Mesopotamia, North Africa and the Levant. This is most probably why Turkey helped Somalia more than any other country when it was hit with famine and drought last year as Prime Minister Erdogan himself accompanied by a high-ranking delegation paid a visit to the crisis-stricken African country during the last Ramadan, when they donated financial help to the Somali transitional government and further explored the markets and opportunities for investment in the country. The Egyptian revolutionary groups have announced that the North African country’s future government will follow a pattern of governance applied in Turkey by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), though the late Turkish prime minister Necmettin Erbakan had made a trip to Libya when it was under Western sanctions. In a similar vein, the Ennahda movement in Tunisia, which has gained power after the popular revolution in 2011, has chosen Turkey as its role model.

Turkey’s concerns over Syria, however, stem from fact that the empowerment of Assad and perpetuation of his rule in Syria will reinforce the position of Alawites there, which can in turn lead to the empowerment of Turkish Alawites who are often viewed as falling outside the official discourse of power in the country.

If Assad faces defeat and his Alawite government collapses, then a Sunni establishment will come to power, but if a civil war breaks out in Syria, Syrian Kurds will have the opportunity to play an active role in the ensuing developments, which can itself influence the political activities of Turkish Kurds while a wave of instability will then spread throughout Syria, Turkey and Iraq. In this respect, one should recall that Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of Turkish Kurds and a founder of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), once lived in Syria and orchestrated PKK’s military attacks against the Turkish army from inside the Syrian soil. Given these, Turkey has engaged itself in this game with utmost sensitivity and caution, so that it might afford to manage the situation to its own advantage before the crisis breaks out.

Since Turkey is an ally of the West, it might be safe to claim that the probable scenarios in Syria are engineered in the interests of Ankara. Turkey is the hunter of golden opportunities which arise in the short term but come to have long-term implications, in the sense that Ankara devises plans for the long term but adopts decisions quite quickly. In the current circumstances, Iran is facing a number of challenges which it can overcome through utilizing its strong diplomatic team. Iran’s offer about the venue of nuclear negotiations with P5+1 is one of the trump cards at its disposal with which it can play the game.

The holding of nuclear talks in Istanbul can help strengthen Turkey’s stance, though Tehran can then secure some points from Ankara in return and enter into bargaining with it on the Syrian crisis on the one hand and raise pressure upon Turkey vis-à-vis the deployment of NATO’s radar and missile defense system on its soil on the other. This is mainly why the West raised the issue of deploying a missile defence system in the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council states as well as the Arab countries on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf, which is aimed at pressuring Iran from all directions, an issue that has entailed the serious protests of Tehran. Iranian leaders have planned to hold the nuclear negotiations with P5+1 in Baghdad, which can amount to a response to Turkey for its alignment with the opponents of Assad in Syria. In addition, Turkey’s move to reduce its oil imports from Iran is also predictable. Of course, Tehran has many options on the table which it can use to retaliate against Ankara, including the issue of goods transportation, transit, and gas transport from Turkmenistan.

In spite of these challenges and concerns, Turkey has announced that it will continue to maintain its amiable relations with Iran, an issue which also underlined by Iranian officials during their meeting with Erdogan. To further its economic goals and development plans, Turkey needs Iranian cooperation as the volume of trade between the two neighbouring countries and the large-scale travel of Iranian tourists to the country make a great contribution to and generates substantial profits for its economy. Given the economic crisis prevailing currently in the West, any uncalculated decision by Turkey to reduce its political, economic and trade relations with Iran will entail grave consequences for the Turkish economy, repercussions which might not be surmounted easily.

Iran is a powerful country in the region and its neighbours will be well advised to understand that their short-term interests in building up ties with non-neighbouring and transregional states do not have as much strategic value as their long-term interests in maintaining relations with their permanent and powerful neighbours. The Islamic Republic of Iran has demonstrated that it spite of the losses and damages it suffered during the war with the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, it currently has the most constructive relations with Iraq as the establishment of stability in a given country’s neighbourhood constitutes an important part of its national interests and hopes for survival, a significant issue which should be seriously taken into consideration.

Now Turkey needs to make a vital decision which has caused a complex and unresolved dilemma for it either we take Iran into account or not. It seems that both sides have strong and skillful diplomatic personnel to resolve the problem. In any case, one should wait and monitor the relevant developments carefully.

Key Words: Iran-Turkey Relations, P5+1 Negotiations, Syria, Iran, Amir Ahmadian

Source: Shargh Newspaper
Translated By: Iran Review

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