There are some memories we would rather not talk about. Turkish-Iranian relations of the last decade can be summarized as a series of missed opportunities. When it comes to Iran, many Turkish pundits are emotionally conflicted and surprisingly careful with their words. Several disappointments in communications with Iran have brought Turkish officials to this quiet skepticism. Indeed, behind the emotional rhetoric lay quite a few failures of communication and coordination between Iran and Turkey. After scrutinizing the partnership process, we can say that the Turkish side had to reset its foreign policy toward Iran as Syrian civil war spread by the end of 2011.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has built its relations with Iran on rather rational expectations. Turkey needed to diversify its energy suppliers, while Iran needed to break its isolation from the West. Turkey and Iran cooperated smoothly against narco-trafficking and terrorism. In those years, the AKP government felt particularly comfortable with Iran’s clerical establishment. Neo-Ottomans seemed determined to establish a system where two sovereign Muslim states not only resided peacefully side by side but cooperated effectively. The old Ottoman-Safavid competition for supremacy was to be over soon under the shining promise of the “zero problems” with neighbors policy. It was never literally “zero problems” with Iran, but we can confidently say that the cost of being neighbors decreased as mutual benefits increased. When talking about Iran, Turkish rhetoric lacked “in the days of our ancestors’ stories” Tehran not being a former Ottoman land. Plus, the harsh international surveillance on Iran made Turks cautious in their interactions.
Given these constraints, the Turkish government took some bold steps to be Iran’s friend. In line with this, Turkey initiated nuclear talks, Istanbul I and II, between Iran and the West and signed the 2010 Tehran Declaration. This was the climax of Turkish backing of Iran and perhaps of Turkish-Iranian partnership in this era. Turkey was adamant that the Iranian nuclear issue could be resolved peacefully, and was ready to face its Western allies and stand up for Iran. As the West tried to question whether the AKP was delusional or deceptive with regard to Iran during the UN veto, relations between Iran and Turkey went sour. Many pundits explained the process of how relations took a turn for the worse. By mid-August 2011, the news that Karayilan [the military head of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) at the Kandil Mountain base] was in Iran spread. This was the reconfirmation of the perception that Iran now supported PKK activities. The summer of 2012 proved to be the bloodiest of the last six years for Turkish armed forces.
Friction continued and resulted in Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad canceling his planned trip for a cultural ceremony, celebrating 13th century Persian poet Rumi, in December 2012. Iran was definitely concerned about the NATO Patriot missiles installed on its border with Turkey with the pretext of a Syrian civil war. Iran argued Turks had rejoined the Western camp, hence took small but effective steps, such as detaining Turks in Iran and reinitiating visa restrictions for Turkish citizens. Although there have been multiple statements from higher echelons of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) against Turkish adventurism in Syria, Turks have been careful not to directly attack Iran or personalize attacks on the Iranian leadership. Two major thorns in the relationship have been the Iranian nuclear weapons program and Syria.
The Turkish government has invested in Iran with the awareness of serious political costs. Even Turkish Intel Chief Hakan Fidan has been accused to be an “Iranist.” So how did the Turkish patience with Iran run its course so much so that many in Ankara now are convinced Iran lost Turkey? First, many officials in Ankara have observed that bargaining Persian-style was not easy. Even prior to the Syrian rupture, Turks have struggled communicating with Iranian officials. AKP officials were offended that in bazaar-style bargaining verbal and written promises differ significantly. Second, it seems the very Islamist AKP of Turkey, according to Western standards, was seen as not Islamic enough in the eyes of the Iranian leadership. Turks have understood that they were seen as Westerners and treated as the “other” by their Iranian counterparts. These rifts evolved into major gaps in the relationship as Syrian civil war spread.
Turkish officials continued communicating with both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iraqi officials in the first year of the Syrian war. Indeed, when one read pro-AKP pundits’ op-eds, one would see many pieces arguing it is only a matter of time that Assad’s regime will fall — because the Iranian support of Syria was to end imminently. It is also likely that the Turks failed to see the depth of the Iranian-Syrian alliance until it was too late. Therefore, they viewed every unrealized “promise” as an act of betrayal. Emotional diplomacy always makes a nice shroud for policy failure.
Iranian mentality, on the other hand, must have assumed that the Turks would read their signals better. They assumed that they would not cross Iran due to Iranian support for energy transfers and keeping terror networks in check. Iranians were baffled with the extent of Turkish determination for a regime change in Syria. Iranian officials have observed that the Turks have kept in line in Iraq most of the time, and they must have calculated a similar pattern to follow for Syria. But the neo-Ottoman goals in Syria were different. For what it is worth, in the public eye Turks did try to unite Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia for a diplomatic solution in Syria. With so many divergent interests and lack of a basis for a meeting, Turkish negotiation efforts proved futile.
The learning curve to re-establish relations between Iran and Turkey as allies was a steep one. Current rhetoric in Ankara is that Iran has lost Turkey. Yet, allegiances shift fast in the Middle East. Ankara might soon see that if it really desires to prevent further deepening of sectarianism in its backyard, Iran is a force to reckon with. Ankara must also question if Iran lost Turkey, what did Turkey lose and is it worth it?
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