Visit of Prime Minister R.T. Erdoğan to Tehran revealed some intriguing aspects. Experts were quick to respond, claiming that strategic interests underpin Ankara-Tehran rapprochement. Admittedly, Iran-Turkey relations are capable of impacting geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East. Therefore, Erdoğan’s visit to the neighboring country is attributed by some to far-reaching geopolitical goals.
From mutual accusations to cooperation: activity on Ankara-Tehran front
Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Iran drew particular attention of the international media and this is associated not just with the geopolitical processes developing in the Middle East. Turkey-Iran relations are also evaluated from the perspective of new world order being shaped globally. Such an approach appears natural at first glance because historically both nations played central role in the vast geopolitical space. Nonetheless, from the point of view of dynamics of modern geopolitics, some urgent and delicate aspects surface (see: Bayram Sinkaya. Başbakan Erdoğan’ın Tahran Ziyareti: Türkiye-İran İlişkilerinde Yeni Bir Dönüm Noktasi / Ortadoğu Stratejik Araşdırmalar Merkezi (ORSAM), 30 January 2014).
First notable aspect was a very warm welcome Erdoğan received upon his arrival to Iran. Biggest problem that Erdoğan faces at home lately has to do with a religious movement called “Jamaat”, comprised of supporters of Fethullah Gülen. They have no affiliation with religious circles in Iran. In fact, Iran is one of the few Muslim countries that allows no “jamaat” schools to be registered. Not even a representative of Gulen’s is present there.
Despite that prior to Erdoğan’s visit several originally Iranian businessmen were targeted in Turkey, Tehran nonetheless cheerfully welcomed Turkish PM, with several significant agreements said to be reached in the course of the visit. What was the motive?
Experts address the very aspect of the visit. They believe Ankara and Tehran are more focused on the substance of the processes developing on global geopolitical arena (see: Петр Искендеров. Турция рвется в региональные лидеры (III) / Фонд Стратегической Культуры, 2 February 2014). First, on the issue of Syria, Ankara realized that in critical moments the Western countries uphold not justice, objectiveness and democracy but rather their geopolitical interests. That is why several months into the conflict in Syria Turkey found itself alone on the center stage. European Union became generally idle while Moscow had interests of its own that compelled it to act. In this connection, Ankara and Kremlin ended up at odds over the issue. U.S, in the meantime, started drifting towards Tehran after some maneuvering.
Second, Iran rushed to capitalize on sectarian differences in the region aiming to satisfy its political and geopolitical objectives. Tehran has called upon radical religious groups to confront the Syrian opposition forces supported by Turkey. Alongside Asad’s troops they succeeded in dealing heavy blows to the Free Syrian Army. Thus, efforts of armed toppling of regime in Damascus were ultimately proved futile. A perilous probability of emergence of grave differences between Turkey and Iran has come about. This wasn’t a favorable option in view of improvement of relations between the West and Iran. Bear in mind that such geopolitical heavyweights as Russia and China are also buttressing Tehran. Thus, Turkey had no choice but to seek closer ties with Iran.
Third, Saudi Arabia is increasingly interfering with the processes in the Middle East. Diplomats are figuratively describing this as “asymmetric, excessive and undesirable”. Essentially, Riyadh strategically tasked itself with becoming a leader state of the Middle East. To that end, Saudis are counting on Washington while also enjoying support of radical religious groups identified as “Salafis”.
Admittedly, Riyadh was so successful in reinvigorating religious groups and spreading them in many regions of the world that now this is acknowledged as a global threat. The likes of China, Russia, EU, U.S., Iran, Pakistan and others are already suffering because of it. “Al-Qaeda”, “Al-Nusra Front”, “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” and other combatant groups, oftentimes referred to as the “Wahabis”, are causing bloodshed in different parts of the world.
It is beyond doubt that Washington is also cautious about growing global outreach of this phenomenon. This may explain America’s emphasis on Iran that has infuriated Riyadh and compelled it to take renewed action. Therefore, under the circumstances, warming of relations on Ankara-Tehran front appear plausible.
Finally, in the context of implementation of energy projects, there are some shared aspects between Turkey and Iran. Ankara is aware that many stakeholders are keen to benefit from Iran’s vast oil and gas resources. In the event of expansion of Iran’s ties with Europe in this field, the subject of diversification of supply routes would gain urgency. Thus, some aspects conforming to Turkey’s interests have to be taken into account. It is not incidental that Turkey’s Energy Minister held talks in Tehran prior to Erdoğan’s Iran visit. The parties have reached certain agreements.
Regional and global contradictions: provisions of strategic partnership
Abovementioned arguments indicate that factors to spur closer cooperation between Iran and Turkey are plentiful. Experts describe the decision to establish the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council between the two, in the course of Erdoğan’s visit, as historic. They emphasize that economic interests prevail in the relations between two states (see: Игорь Панкратенко. Эрдоган в Тегеране: сначала – торговля, затем – политика / Фонд Стратегической Культуры, 4 February 2014).
In the meantime, significant role of the Syria factor in Ankara-Tehran relations must not be ignored. Both nations are forced to jointly confront an ever-growing threat of “Al-Qaeda” in the region. Most recently Turkish armed forces eliminated an “Al-Qaeda” affiliated group that was approaching its borders. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu was quoted saying: “threat is approaching our borders”, while some experts insist that the threat has already penetrated Turkey. Speculations are that PKK affiliated Peace and Democracy Party is aiming to take advantage of the circumstances to exacerbate the current situation.
All of this demonstrates that Iran and Turkey are poised to concertedly combat certain terrorist groups in the region. Still, this must not imply that both countries have reached comprehensive agreement. Let us not forget the argument in Davos between the Foreign Ministers of Turkey and Iran about fomenting sectarianism in Syria (see: Mehmet Seyfettin Erol. Ankra-Tahran Hattinda “Yeni Suriye” Faktoru… / “Milli Gazete”, 30 January 2014). However, according to the experts, such differences will not entail deterioration of ties between these countries.
Qualitative changes may happen in Iran-Turkey relations. Should they take a historic step and ensure joint performance, the Middle Eastern landscape may undergo rapid transformation. In that case, some overlapping aspects of interests of some states may emerge. First, this would significantly impair Saudi Arabia’s regional leadership aspirations and provoke the former to resort to more drastic measures. The rise of sectarianism-centered terrorism is possible and that process would reinvigorate some quarters interested in fuelling sectarian strife in the Muslim world. The region may ultimately plunge into deeper uncertainty.
Second, Iran-Turkey rapprochement may irritate Washington and Tel-Aviv. U.S. Treasury’s Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen paid a visit to Ankara on the eve of Erdoğan voyage to Iran and reminded Turkey that sanctions against Iran were still in place and urged not to pursue further cooperation with Tehran. Nonetheless, Turkey brushed it off (see previously mentioned article by Игорь Панкратенко).
Third, Russia and China may choose to calibrate their Middle East policies, presumably because this level of Turkey-Iran cooperation was never considered. It would be fascinating to see how Beijing and Moscow adapt to the new realities.
Finally, how the European Union would react to Turkey’s actions given the latter’s aspirations for EU membership? Would not Brussels be concerned about the nature of strategic cooperation with Iran? Presumably, the subject was discussed in Berlin between Merkel and Erdoğan.
Along with certain clarity, from regional and global geopolitics point of view, the recent developments brought about more questions. In any event, two states suggested “new riddles” for politicians to solve.