Turkey and Tehran: Cooperation and Conflict

Turkey lives in the neighborhood which means that its role in Afghanistan is more constant than the Western players currently deploying force in the country. (Credit Image: Bigstock)

10/25/2011 – By Dr. Richard Weitz During our time in Turkey, a key issue of interest was getting an update on their relationship with Iran. Although we were in Turkey for only one week, it was evident that Turkey’s relationship with Iran is complex. The two countries cooperate in some areas and conflict in others.

For example, when pressed, the Turkish policy makers we met acknowledged that Iran and Turkey see one another as rivals for influence in the Middle East. Turkish academics and business people more readily confirmed this competition, though all our interlocutors made clear that Turkey would seek to avoid a direct confrontation with Iran because it would undermine the progress Ankara and Tehran had made in resolving their historic tensions.

Turkey's role as a crossroads power has been enhanced by the Arab Spring and the challenges posed by Iran.  (Credit image: Bigstock)
Turkey's role as a crossroads power has been enhanced by the Arab Spring and the challenges posed by Iran. (Credit image: Bigstock)

Turkey and Iran share some regional security interests. Turkish foreign policy experts emphasize that, while the United States and other NATO countries appear to want to withdraw their military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as possible, Turkey cannot escape the geographic imperative of dealing directly with the security issues involving these neighboring countries.

The Turkish national security elite therefore wants to see a strong Iraqi government that could enforce control over the Kurdish region bordering Turkey, especially to prevent the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which still conducts guerrilla and terrorist attacks against Turkey, from strengthening its presence in the region. Turkey has also sent troops to Afghanistan and sought to reduce tensions between the Kabul government and Pakistan.

In light of these objectives, Turkish officials naturally want Tehran’s help in keeping Afghanistan, Iraq, and other neighboring regions stable. Turkish experts do not consider Iran a disruptive force in Afghanistan given all the other problems facing that country as well as the large number of other countries active in Afghanistan, which dilutes Tehran’s influence and options.

With regard to Iraq, some Turkish analysts foresee the possible advent of a pro-Iranian Shiite government in Baghdad. In this case, they would try to work with Tehran to exert influence on Iran’s policies towards turkey, Kurdistan, and other regional security issues.

With regard to Iran’s relations with Western countries, Turkish experts fear that isolating and threatening Tehran could further radicalize Iran’s foreign policy, which at least with regards to Turkey has been generally non-confrontational. An alienated Iranian government might deepen its ties with international terrorist organizations, intervene more aggressively in Iraq and Afghanistan, and pursue other retaliatory actions against NATO countries that would invariably harm Turkish interests.

Turks have already seen this process at work. Since 1990, they have suffered considerable economic costs, regional security setbacks, and other losses from Western sanctions and military actions against Iraq.

During its most recent two-year rotating term on the UN Security Council (UNSC), which ended in 2010, Turkey joined with Brazil as the most vocal opponent of imposing additional sanctions on Iran for its controversial nuclear activities. Turkish officials consider the “dual-track” approach adopted by the UNSC and other countries toward Iran—combining offers of cooperation with threats of retaliation—counterproductive.

Instead, they argue that the best way to prevent Tehran from seeking nuclear weapons is to address the underlying sources of insecurity that might induce Iran to seek them. Rather than rely on threats and sanctions, they want to offer Iran security pledges in return for reciprocal Iranian guarantees that Tehran will not misuse nuclear technology for military purposes.

Economic and energy considerations have also motivated Turkish opposition to applying more sanctions against Iran. The two countries have also seen a surge in bilateral commerce, thanks in part to Iran’s subsidizing energy sales to Turkey. Bilateral trade already exceeded $11 billion last year and the two governments have set the goal of tripling that figure to $30 billion by 2015.

Each day Turkey imports some 20-25 million cubic meters of Iranian gas at discounted prices through a direct pipeline connecting the two neighboring states. This equates to approximately 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year, which amounts to almost one-third of Turkey’s yearly gas consumption and has made Iran Turkey’s second largest supplier of gas after Russia.

There are numerous media reports that Turkey has not fully enforced the international economic sanctions imposed on Iran. But Turks worry that new sanctions on Iran will make circumvention more costly and further harm Turkey’s economic interests. International sanctions already contributed to last year’s decision of Turkish Petroleum International Co. to withdraw from a $7 billion deal to develop a part of Iran’s enormous South Pars field.

Another factor drawing Turkey and Iran together has been the decreasing strength of Turkey’s secular political parties and national security establishment. Before 2002, Turkish secularists pointed to Iran as a potential nightmare model that might occur should an avowedly religious party gain control of the Turkish government. But the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has governed Turkey since 2002, has discredited this claim.

Furthermore, whereas Turkish politicians and military leaders used to see Turkey’s Islamic neighbors Iran and Syria as potential threats, and sought to develop security ties with Israel, the other important non-Muslim state in the Middle East, Turkish and Iranian leaders now share a common animus towards Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

At times, Prime Minister Erdogan and President Ahmadinejad appear to compete for Arab mass support through their public attacks on Israel and their endorsement of various pro-Palestinian initiatives such as the controversial “freedom flotillas” seeking to defy Israel’s blockade of Gaza. While the previously robust intelligence cooperation between Turkey and Israel has largely ended, Turkey now shares intelligence with Iran about the PKK insurgents in Iraq and other mutual threats.

Despite these economic, energy, and security ties, sources of bilateral tension are growing. Turkish officials do not object to Iran’s pursuit of limited nuclear energy activities under appropriate international monitoring. In addition, Turkey wants to prevent other countries, such as Israel or the United States, from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities using military force. (They do not comment on the more exotic cyber attacks.)

Nonetheless, while Turkish officials profess to believe that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, they clearly do not want Tehran to obtain nuclear weapons. They fear that such a development would set off a wave of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and would also embolden Iran to behave more aggressively.

Members of Turkey’s still influential national security establishment have suggested that, if Iran ever acquired nuclear weapons, Turkey would rapidly do likewise for reasons of security and prestige.

Turkish leaders have sought to mediate the nuclear dispute between Tehran and Western countries, seeking a deal that would permit Iran to conduct peaceful nuclear activities but not nuclear weapons. Most notably, last May Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Lula Inacio da Silva of Brazil even announced an agreement in Tehran on May 17 whereby Iran would deposit 1,200 kilograms of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) in Turkey in return for the delivery within one year of 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to the higher level needed for Tehran’s medical research reactor. The previous year, the Obama administration unsuccessfully tried to construct a package deal whereby Iran would receive additional fuel for this reactor from a foreign supplier in return for accepting various temporary constraints on Iran’s nuclear program as a confidence-building measure.

The Turkey-Brazil-Iran agreement differed in crucial respects from the deal the United States and its allied had offered at a 2009 meeting with Iranian representatives in Vienna. For example, whereas the Vienna Group sought to secure a suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities as part of the deal, the trilateral declaration explicitly affirms Tehran’s right to research, develop, produce, and use all elements of the nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment. After the declaration, the Iranian government affirmed that it would continue to enrich uranium to the 20 percent level, which the original Vienna deal was explicitly designed to prevent.

Another problem was that, as a result of the time that has elapsed since last October, Iran has continued to enrich much more uranium, making the 1,200 kilograms of LEU Iran would exchange under the new trilateral proposal a much smaller share of its total stockpile.

The immediate reason Iranian government accepted the trilateral agreement was to avert new UN sanctions, which were nonetheless approved by the Security Council the following month. As in the past, Iranian diplomats sought to make some concessions in order to keep the focus on the negotiation track, especially by giving a justification to governments that were looking for a plausible excuse to delay adopting new sanctions. Until then, Iranian officials had ignored Turkish officers to mediate the dispute, including a Turkish offer the previous year to allow the proposed nuclear fuel exchange to occur on Iranian territory, one of Tehran’s core demands.

Iran’s gambit failed to break the great power unity. Years of frustrating negotiations have led European governments, the Obama administration, and now Russia and China to discount Tehran’s present willingness to negotiate acceptable constraints on its nuclear program. Middle-ranking powers like Turkey have been drawn into this vacuum, but their mediation efforts have proven equally unsuccessful, and they still lack the power to block further sanctions.

Turkey voted against UNSC Resolution 1929,adopted on June 9, 2010, since it imposed additional sanctions on Iran rather than accept the Turkish-Brazil-Iran agreement as a means to reconcile Tehran with its nuclear critics. Turkish officials have said they will respect the resolution, which is binding on all UN members, but not enforce the supplementary sanctions adopted by the United States, EU members, or other countries unless they are also adopted by the UNSC, which would make them legally obligatory for all UN members. Some nonproliferation allege that certain Turkish firms have been aiding Iran’s nuclear program by providing dual-use goods and services (e.g., banking) that could have military as well as peaceful applications.

Although Turkey still does not oppose Iran’s nuclear activities, new sources of tension have disrupted their relations. The Iranians complain about Ankara’s decision to host a missile defense radar on Turkish territory that, despite NATO’s denials, is clearly designed against Iran’s growing fleet of ballistic missiles which could easily reach Turkey, Furthermore, they object to Turkish leaders’ seeking to export their version of Islamic democracy to the new regimes of the Middle East that came to power with the Arab Spring, which Iran generally opposes.

But the most divisive issue between Ankara and Tehran is their contrasting approach toward Syria.

The preservation of a friendly regime in Damascus is a vital national interest for Iran. The Syrian government represents one of Iran’s few genuine allies, having resisted strong U.S. efforts to wean it away from Tehran. In addition, Iran’s ability to “unleash” Hamas and Hezbollah is seen in Tehran as an important means of deterring, through threats of retaliation, Israeli or U.S. military action against Iran. And Syria provides the territory, intelligence, and other essential enablers that Iranians need to keep these two proxies militarily powerful.

Given these interests, it is unsurprising that the Iranian media, and some Iranian officials, have criticized the Turkish government for acting as a proxy for the West in these conflicts. Nonetheless, Turkish officials have calculated that the Iranian government, which is regionally isolated and potentially vulnerable to its own Arab Spring, cannot risk a break with Turkey.