It is now something of a cliche to note that Turkey’s foreign policy mantra of “zero problems” has given way to problems everywhere Ankara looks. Nowhere is that truer than in the Turkey-Iran relationship, which has been buffeted from all sides over the past three years, reaching its lowest ebb with the two sides’ diametrically opposed positions in the stalemated Syrian civil war.
In that time, Turkey and Iran have increasingly vied for influence across the region. In Iraq, Turkey backed the losing electoral bloc in the 2010 elections, and currently shelters fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. By contrast, Iran’s clout in Iraq has grown as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has consolidated power. In Palestine, Turkey strengthened its relationship with Hamas, inviting its leader, Khaled Mashaal, to Ankara in February, while Iran has boosted support to Hamas’ smaller and more radical rivals in Gaza, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Even before these dynamics emerged, Turkey’s commitment to NATO was becoming a wedge issue between Turkey and Iran, with Turkey’s hosting of radar for NATO’s missile-defense system especially contentious. Iran threatened to pre-emptively attack the site, prompting a vehement reaction from Turkey. And despite Ankara’s strong opposition to allowing NATO to name Iran as a threat, Iran’s nuclear and missile program was featured as the primary concern in Turkey’s own 2005 National Security Policy Document, known as the red book.
Nevertheless, Turkey has been ambivalent about the sanctions regime against Iran and its nuclear program, given Turkey and Iran’s previously flourishing trade in goods and energy. The U.S. has granted Ankara several waivers that exempt it from aspects of U.S. sanctions and allow it to continue importing some Iranian oil. Iran still provides just less than half of Turkey’s oil imports, although Turkey’s method of payment—gold—was blocked by fresh sanctions that came into effect in July. Turkey was also chastened by its failed efforts, alongside Brazil, to broker a nuclear deal with Iran in 2010, but Turkey continues to insist that Iran has a right to enrichment and that isolating Iran will not work. Turkish officials, moreover, still claim in private that Turkey’s “neutrality” and high-level access in Tehran allow Ankara to play a key back-channel role.
For these reasons, periodic tensions served as irritants, but never fatal ones. Yet what truly rocked the bilateral relationship was the intensification of the Syrian civil war after 2011. Tehran’s massive support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey’s arming and sheltering of predominantly Sunni rebels in alliance with Iran’s Persian Gulf Arab antagonists, pitted the two nations against one another in a proxy war. As in Iraq, there is a sectarian undertone to Syria’s conflict, with Turkey aligned more closely with Sunni factions and countries, and Iran with Shiite or similar groupings.
Turkey’s involvement in Syria has also had some unintended consequences. Ankara’s fear of a Kurdish resurgence in Syria probably played a role in prompting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reach a historic—and now fraught—agreement with the Kurdish rebel group PKK, which earlier this year began withdrawing from Turkey into Iraq. That concerns Iran, whose own Kurdish rebels, the PJAK, against whom Turkey and Iran have cooperated in the past, might be reinforced by PKK manpower.
More recently, however, there have been indications of stabilizing factors at work. A series of bombings in border towns in southern Turkey, the flood of Syrian refugees and the severe domestic unpopularity of Turkey’s regime change policy toward Syria have all tempered Erdogan’s aggressive approach. This summer’s onset of domestic protests further weakened Erdogan’s hand.
Earlier this month, Erdogan actively sought Iranian assistance in securing the release of a group of Turkish pilots who were kidnapped in Lebanon, possibly to be used as bargaining chips to secure the reciprocal release of Lebanese Shiites held by a Sunni rebel group in Syria. In January, Turkey and Qatar had together brokered the release of 48 Iranian prisoners held by rebels in exchange for the release of 2,000 prisoners held by the Assad regime. As the Syrian regime consolidates its position in the crucial Damascus-Homs-coastal axis, Turkey may be inching toward a more pragmatic policy, continuing to support rebel groups but keeping a closer watch on the potential for blowback.
It would be premature to suggest that this portends a Turkey-Iran thaw. To be sure, the coup against President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt put Ankara and Tehran on the same side against the Western countries that quietly accepted the return of military-backed rule. In mid-July, then-Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi visited Ankara to discuss the issue. But the stakes here are higher for Iran, which understandably fears the return of Mubarak-era elites hostile to Tehran, than for Turkey, and this temporary alignment of interests is not by itself decisive.
The election of moderate conservative Hasan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency is more important, but it is notable that Turkey sent only its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to the inauguration. Davutoglu bluntly noted that Iran had become “a direct party [in Syria] after Hezbollah’s entry to the field to fight,” and that “if they persist with the same policies, the Rouhani era might become a new disappointment for the region.”
In this, Turkey’s approach resembles that of the United States and other Western nations: lingering mistrust of Iranian intentions tempered by a desire not to undercut Rouhani at home prematurely, and a consequent openness to engagement. But there are few illusions about the likelihood of core issues—the nuclear dispute for the U.S. and Syria for Turkey—being resolved quickly. For the foreseeable future, then, the relationship between Turkey and Iran is likely to continue to be held hostage to these stalemated broader issues.
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