Iranian Diplomacy- Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif experienced difficult moments at the Munich Security Conference in late February.
Israel and Saudi Arabia criticized Iran as it was expected in Tehran, but the big surprise unveiled when Turkey joined them. Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, criticized what he called Iran’s “sectarian policy” aimed at undermining Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. A few days earlier, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a visit to the Arabian Peninsula in Bahrain had said: “We do not want Syria to be torn apart, we are against it, and you should know that there are those who work on dividing Syria and Iraq at the same time, by exploiting sectarian differences”.
He was referring implicitly to Iran. In backlash, Tehran summoned Turkish ambassador and hit back Ankara. Turkey and other critics of Iran’s policy did not pay attention to the Zarif’s brilliant remarks in Munich: “Countries in the Persian Gulf region need to surmount the current state of division and tension and instead move in the direction of erecting realistic regional arrangements. It can perhaps start with a modest regional dialogue forum, based on generally recognized principles and shared objectives. The forum can promote understanding on a broad spectrum of issues, including confidence- and security-building measures, and combating terrorism, extremism and sectarianism”.
After returning to the Tehran, Zarif in an interview with Iran Newspaper complained: “Turkish officials are forgetful and ungrateful”. It seems that relations between Iran and Turkey have returned to the rocky road.
Geopolitical competition between the two states had alleviated after Iran’s support for Turkish government against failed coup in July 2016. Both sides have taken steps to improve mutual relations, and for the first time, it seemed a triangle formation between Russia, Iran and Turkey would shape the rising geopolitics of the Middle East after inception of the civil war in Syria. A number of factors led to diminishing this optimism. First, rapprochement between Iran and Turkey was based on hopes for political opportunities which could be gained in the Syrian conflict. Also, in the wake of such rapprochement with Iran and Russia, Ankara intended to show its discontent toward Washington and perhaps was hopeful that U.S would therefore be encouraged to grant more concessions in order to prevent Turkey from falling into Russia’s orbit. In other word, Turkey’s new policy was more of a political benchmark than a strategic shift.
Secondly, fluctuations of the Syrian war that created new arrangements each time prevented Iran and Turkey from sincere collaboration, while the two sides remained profoundly suspicious of each other’s intentions. Ankara hopes that every time she gains an advantage on the battlefield, it can be converted into a sustainable geopolitical advantage, and probably used as a leverage to bargain from a better position. Hence, as long as the war continues in Syria, there is less incentive for real rapprochement with Iran.
Third, the coming to power of Donald Trump has caused hopes and fears for Turkey. On one side, Turkey, like other Middle Eastern allies of Washington is worried that Trump’s America does not define any interest in intervention more than Obama administration did in rebalancing of the Middle East. In this case, Turkey should deal with the strategic challenges that have surrounded the country. On the other side, Turkey hopes to direct America towards increasing involvement in the Middle East before U.S adopts a firm quasi-isolationist strategy. The end of the short-lived honey moon between Iran and the U.S has opened new perspectives for Turkey which enable her to put pressure on Iran by exploiting the chances that Trump era provides.
Nevertheless, Turkey has two reasons to be cautious. First, the developing negotiations of Syrian peace process in Astana is not irreversible. Rising tensions between Iran and Turkey will typically be negative impact on talks and subsequently could worsen the prospects by exasperating both sides even further. Stalemated negotiations at this time will postpone the prospects of finding a resolution to the crisis indefinitely. Needless to say, Turkey would bear further loss due to the urgent issues Ankara faces as a result of having long borders with Syria. Second, beyond Syria, Iran in the eastern flank of Turkey is the only bridge to the epicenter of 21st century. Iran as a stable and reliable partner is more valuable than Israel which is in permanent conflict and even Saudi Arabia as one of the few survivors of the Dark Ages. Turkey, if prudent and in possession of clear geopolitical vision, shall make the right choice at the ever more complicated chessboard of the Middle East.
* Diako Hosseini is senior fellow in the Center for Strategic Research. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Iranian Diplomacy’s editorial policy.