A Year of Renewed Cooperation: 2019 and the new prospect of Tehran-Ankara relations
As one of the most important countries in the Middle East region, Turkey plays a serious role in the economic development of our country. With reimposition of US sanctions on Iran, need for neighbors such as Turkey becomes more significant. Ankara, on the other hand, has explicitly declared its support for Iran vis-a-vis the sanctions. Cooperation between Iran and Turkey on the Syrian dossier has also elevated the regional and international importance of ties between the two countries.
In an interview with Iranian Diplomacy, Rahman Ghahremanpour, Turkey affairs analyst, discusses Iran-Turkey relations in 2018, and the prospect of bilateral ties in 2018. Following is the interview:
What is your general assessment of Iran-Turkey relations in 2018?
After Tehran supported Erdogan government following the July 2016 coup, Tehran-Ankara relations returned to a phase of improvement. An overview of ensuing developments proves this point. Tensions between Iran and Turkey since 2011, particularly over the Syrian dossier, were largely resolved through diplomatic initiatives such as the Astana Talks. Turkey's support for Iran's stance over Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum in 2017 also brought the two countries closer.
Did the reimposition of US sanctions on Iran have a role in bringing Tehran and Ankara closer?
Definitely. In addition to Tehran's condemnation of 2016 Turkish coup d'état attempt, diplomatic meetings for the Syrian dossier, and the two countries' opposition to Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum, US sanctions against both Iran and Turkey also brought the two closer. Of course, Turkey played a key role in Iran's circumvention of US sanctions during the early 2010s. Historically, the political and diplomatic tradition in Turkey has been to seek maximum benefits from the circumstances in order to achieve their interests. Turkey did not follow US sanctions against Iran neither in the 1980s nor during the early 2010s. To data, Ankara has expressly stated it will not accompany the new round of sanctions imposed by Trump against Tehran. Turkey aims to tackle its domestic economic problems in 2019 through economic cooperation with Iran, Qatar, Caucasian states, and some Arab countries.
Therefore, compared to previous years, Turkey is much more in need of developing its economic relations with Iran. Particularly after the 2016 coup, Turkey faced severe economic turbulences. Erdogan is in dire need of help by its neighbors, particularly Iran, to meet its economic goals. This is especially important knowing that since the coup, Fethullah Gülen's supporters in large corporations, financial institutes, and a number of banks were either purged or withdrew from the economy.
In the light of Ankara's pragmatic policies, could we expect further pressure by Trump on Erdogan to chance his policy towards Iran?
Turkey's current approach towards Iran should be analyzed with consideration of the turn in Ankara's foreign policy. Turkey today is different from what it was 30 years ago, or 2002, or even before 2016. Since the 2016 coup, a political consensus has taken shape between the decision-makers in Turkey to launch a multilateral policy independent of EU and US vision.
Up to a few years ago, Turkey was a country in need of economic and partially security aid by the EU and the United States.
But developments of the recent years at the regional and international level has taken Turkey to the conclusion that it should follow a more independent line to achieve its objectives. Since 1999, Turkey was a serious candidate to join the EU, but this has failed to materialize so far. Since then, much smaller and less strategic countries such as Malta and Cyprus have become members of the European Union. Ankara has become certain that as a nation with Islamic roots, it cannot join the European Union, a club of Christian countries. That is why Turkey has decided to let go of the EU membership dream, and follow a multilateral policy, independent of the West. Ankara believes that it needs the potential of all regional and trans-regional countries for growth and development of Turkey. To achieve this goal, it has raised its international profile from Africa to Russia, China, Qatar, Netherlands, Canada and elsewhere.
Tehran, as a major power in the Middle East, can significantly help Turkey achieve its goals. Thus, Turkey is aware of Iran's importance in its policies and has serious plans to develop its relations with Tehran in all areas. In fact, Turkey aims to establish balance of power between Iran and the US in future years. And it is intent not to raise tension with its neighbors, unlike the previous decades. That is why we see closer collaboration between Tehran and Ankara over the Syrian dossier -which had created serious social and political rift in Turkey in the recent years- in the past couple of years. Turkey is not vehemently against Bashar Assad's remaining in power. Turkey is also following Tehran's line in the Syrian dossier. Thus, Turkey will not simply abandon Iran, not because it favors Tehran's policy, but because its current situation necessitates such an approach.
But there is one point which needs explanation. Turkey was sanctioned by the US in 2018 for the controversy over Pastor Andrew Brunson. The pressure of sanctions and their impact on Turkish economy forced Ankara to release the American priest. And we are aware of Trump's serious efforts to isolate Iran from its neighbors. Is it possible that new sanctions against Turkey dissociate Erdogan from Iran?
You have to take note of one point. And that is Turkey's high potential. Turkey cannot be compared to countries like Iraq, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan or any other neighbor of Iran. Next to Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey forms the power triangle in the Middle East.
Thus, you can't claim with certainty that Trump's pressures would force Turkey chance its policies towards a key neighbor such as Iran. As precedents have proven, Ankara will not easily change its policies vis-a-vis Tehran under pressure from Washington. Particularly in the current circumstances, where sanctions are unilateral, and EU is trying to rescue the JCPOA and neutralize sanctions through economic aids to Iran. This will hearten Turkey to continue collaboration with Iran.
But there are other considerations, such as the quadrilateral Istanbul meeting between France, Russia, Germany, and Turkey, held less than a month after the trilateral Iran-Russia-Turkey meeting in Iran, and Iran was not invited. Also, Russia and Turkey have excluded Iran from negotiations over Idlib, Ankara has made incursions into Syrian territory (Afrin, Manbij), and continues supporting Al-Nusra Front and Free Syrian Army. Are these signs that Turkey is drifting away from Iran over the Syrian dossier?
The quadrilateral meeting in Istanbul doesn't necessarily mean leaving Iran out of the Syrian case. The Istanbul meeting had been slated months before, even before the Tehran summit.
On the other hand, it excluded UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the US too. So we couldn't conclude Iran's exclusion from the Syrian dossier by Turkey. The conference may not have met our interests, but it did not harm it too. I see it as part of Turkey's multilateral approach which I pointed earlier. And it is unrealistic to expect Iran be a part of each and every initiative related to Syria. But still I agree with you that there are potential points of contention in the Syrian dossier between Tehran and Ankara. Though neither Iran nor Turkey have plans to struggle over the Syrian case. Instead, they will seek to negotiate their differences for 2019.