The New Iran-Turkey Convergence: The Major Areas

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mohammad Reza Kiani & Maysam Behravesh

Active ImageIran-Turkey relationship is a determining factor in the Iranian government's overall foreign policy in the region. Both neighbors place considerable importance on the maintenance of a close and constructive relationship with each other. There are many policy areas where they share common regional interests and accordingly tend to adopt similar positions to secure them, which has helped strengthen their bilateral ties in recent years and has strongly impacted on developments in the Middle East and beyond. This piece undertakes to analyze principal aspects of the new convergence between Iran and Turkey.

Turkey’s significance derives, first and foremost, from its ‘bridging’ geographic location between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, providing it with easy access to strategically important hubs and major energy resources. Its position on the Nabucco, a proposed natural gas pipeline from Erzurum in Turkey to Baumgarten an der March in Austria, and South Stream pipeline, which is seen as a rival to the planned Nabucco gas pipeline, on the one hand and propinquity to energy consuming markets in Europe on the other has made Turkey a key country in ensuring global energy security. A modern Muslim country, Turkey also stands as a historical-cultural bridge between Western and Islamic civilizations.

One of the most distinguishing elements of Turkish foreign policy under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) has been Ankara’s effective engagement in the Middle East developments, including its influential role as a mediator in Israel-Syria and Hamas-Fatah peace talks, as well as Iraq-Syria tensions over sectarian conflicts. Turkey's policy toward its neighbors is perceptibly based on innovative ‘strategic depth’ and ‘zero problem’ approach that aims to end regional disputes and enhance stability in its neighborhood, replacing tension with cooperation. It is also worth mentioning that lack of progress in its efforts to join the European Union mostly due to strong opposition by Germany and France to its membership there has inclined Ankara to conclude that its interests can be better secured by greater involvement in the Middle East(1). As a result of this Eastward political swing, diplomatic traffic in recent years between Turkey and Iran has increased and relations have entered a new phase of closer cooperation. A number of key issues such as Turkey's critical attitude toward Israel, Iran’s archfoe, and growing engagement in the Iranian politics and economy as well as enhancing collaboration between Turkey and Syria, Iran's strategic ally, have brought about further integration between the two countries.

Deterioration of Turkey's ties with Israel has been a strong influence on its new policy of building closer relations with Iran. In 2004, Turkey condemned Israeli assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin as a "terrorist act". It later described the Israeli treatment of the Gaza Strip as "state-sponsored terrorism" when Israel launched a military offensive on the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009. On October 11, 2009, Turkey-Israel relations were aggravated even further when Israel was barred from Anatolian Eagle military exercise in Turkey. On May 31, 2010, the slaughter of eight Turkish human rights activists by Israeli troops during a raid on Mavi Marmara, a Turkish-registered humanitarian aid ship heading for Gaza, dealt the heaviest blow ever to the already strained ties. Also, Turkey is the only member of G20 countries whose relations with the United States have experienced a cold spell since Barack Obama took office. In the wake of these developments, Turkey’s unprecedented pro-Iran policy has not only angered Israel but also alarmed many of the region’s wealthiest and most powerful Arab states who see the Islamic Republic as a grave threat to their regional interests.

In May 2010, Iran reached a nuclear agreement with Turkey and Brazil to export 1,200kg of its stockpiled low-enriched uranium in return for fuel rods for Tehran’s civilian research reactor. More Significantly, Turkey voted against the UNSC resolution 1929 that was imposed on Iran for its nuclear activities on June 9, 2010.. In other words, Turkey was the only American ally and NATO member to oppose new UNSC sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program(2).

Iran and Turkey also have very close trade and economic relations. Energy is an important driver behind Turkey’s growing co-operation with Iran as its second largest supplier of natural gas. In July 2007, they signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to transport 30bn cubic meters (bcm) of Iranian (and Turkmen) natural gas to Europe; a key initiative that anticipates the construction of two separate shipping pipelines. The state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) will also be allowed to develop three different sections of Iran’s South Pars gas field, which contains an estimated total recoverable reserve of 14 trillion cubic meters gas(3). Iran-Turkey trade has been burgeoning in recent years despite international sanctions, rising tenfold from $1 billion in the year 2000 to $10 billion this year, with the bulk comprising of Iranian gas exports(4), and the trade turnover between these neighbours will reach $30 billion according to Iranian officials(5). As Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, the Iranian vice president noted in a meeting with Abdullah Gul, ‘[t]here are no obstacles preventing the progress and development of our relations. Iran is interested in deepening political and economic ties with Turkey and intends to further strengthen and develop’ them.

Active ImageBeside the good political and economic cooperation, Turkey’s relation with Iran’s strategic ally, Syria, is increasing. Turkey’s close ties with Syria on the one hand and growing reciprocation with Iran on the other have helped to create a triangular politico-strategic structure in the Middle East.  Iran-Syria-Turkey axis that has been based on effective strategic partnership is a matter of great importance in the regional stability and power equations. The Kurdish question with which all three Muslim countries are concerned has significantly served to foster a harmonious relationship between them. Iran and Syria both have substantial Kurdish minorities on their territories and share Turkey’s interest in preventing the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in the overlapping Kurdish-populated areas. As with Iran, Ankara’s closer ties with Syria have not only created strains with the United States and its closest regional partner, Israel, but also alarmed Arab autocracies of the region that see Syria as part of a rival ‘Shi’a Crescent’ stretching from Iran to Lebanon. 

Turkey has a 499-km border with Iran that makes it susceptible to major international developments affecting the Islamic Republic. Apart from Turkey-Iran cooperation over key economic and political issues, neighborhood security persuades the two sides to bridge their differences of attitude and further integrate with each other. Turkish opposition to the invasion of Iran by the US or Israel stems for its security concerns that it cannot remain immune to the harm caused by the ‘spillover’ of instability in its immediate neighborhood. As a reliable neighbor in the eye of the Ahmadinejad administration, Turkey has the greatest chance, for the time being, of persuading Iran and the West to resume serious negotiations for defusing unresolved and long-lasting tensions, including acrimonious disputes over Iran’s nuclear program.




(3) The United States opposes large investments in Iran’s energy sector and therefore has bitterly inveighed against the deal. Washington is concerned that the deal could undermine US-Turkish cooperation to develop Caspian gas resources and construct pipeline infrastructure to transport them to international markets. Instead of the deal with Iran, U.S. officials urge Turkey to either intensify collaboration with Azerbaijan to transport gas from the Shah Deniz field or to import it from Iraq. 

(4). Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2010:


Mohammad Reza Kiani is a final-year PhD student of International Relations at Islamic Azad University, Science and Research Branch, Tehran.

Maysam Behravesh is a final-year MA student of British Studies in the Faculty of World Studies (FWS), Tehran University..