Can Turkey Continue to Compartmentalize its Relations with Tehran?


2014-02-07 by Baris Kirdemir

Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan visited Tehran last week, along with his cabinet members to have discussions on bilateral relations and regional security issues with Iran’s newly elected President Hassan Rouhani, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri.

Several agreements were signed to improve bilateral relations in economic and some other areas.

Remarks of leaders from both countries signaled prospects of a limited diplomatic rapprochement.

It was later announced that Iranian leader Rouhani will visit Ankara this spring. Despite key disagreements on regional issues, Turkish and Iranian governments agreed to initiate several mechanisms for continuous dialogue.

Turkey’s primary objective with Iran is to boost economic ties meanwhile searching for any availability to resolve regional divergences which limit Ankara’s reach to the Middle East and deepen sectarian fault lines.

Nonetheless,  the Turkish-Iranian rivalry on vital regional security issues limits prospects of any rebound in foreseeable future.

 Turkey's Erdogan visits Iran to improve ties after split over Syria 9 days ago Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, second left, welcomes Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for their meeting in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. Erdogan arrived in Tehran for talks with Iranian leaders on bilateral ties and regional issues including Syria. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, second left, welcomes Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for their meeting in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Though Turkey has been able to compartmentalize its relations with Iran and Russia, its foreign policy goals in the Middle East and quest for primacy will continue to be challenged by Iran’s strategic agenda.

Despite the short term economic opportunities of Iran’s softening diplomacy with international community, regional geopolitics make it Turkey’s strongest rival.

The future of the Turkish-Iranian relationship will be correlated with Tehran’s so called detente with the international community, especially the US.

If the nuclear deal gains momentum and Iran starts to integrate with the international community thanks to lifting of sanctions, Turkey will be dealing with a rival with a boosting economy and regional leadership aspirations stronger than ever.

However, if it fails, Ankara would have to face an imminent security threat.

As a result of the talks last week, Turkish and Iranian leaders agreed to aim to boost the bilateral trade volume to $30 billion in 2015.  A preferential trade agreement was signed to reduce tariffs for certain Iranian agricultural and Turkish industrial goods by both countries. Turkish-Iranian bilateral trade was at all-time peak in 2012 with $21.8 billion, though it fell to $13.5 billion last year.

They agreed to start a High-Level Cooperation Council, which will start to function in a few months.

Additionally, it was announced that several other documents were signed on cultural, political, trade, banking, customs and cinematic cooperation.

Reportedly, a joint economic commission will also commence talks in near future.

Turkey’s economic motives to enhance cooperation with Iran include boosting exports, diversifying natural gas imports and revising gas prices it pays to Tehran.

Turkey’s energy dependency is the primary factor which has widened its trade deficit to $99.8 billion recently. In 2013, Turkey’s trade deficit with Iran was $6.2 billion, due to recent fall of its exports.

Strengthening bilateral trade and economic interdependence with the neighboring and Middle Eastern countries were correlated with Turkey’s foreign policy objectives last decade.

However, Iran uses its energy card as a foreign policy instrument while Turkey wants to increase its exports to narrow down trade deficit.

Disagreement on gas prices between Tehran and Ankara remain to be resolved. Turkey’s Energy Minister Taner Yildiz announced Ankara’s intent to double Iranian gas imports, only if Tehran agrees to reduce the price to a satisfactory level for Turkey. In recent years, due to international sanctions and bilateral political problems, Turkey reduced its oil import volume from Iran.

The emerging threat which is posed by Al Qaeda affiliated groups can be another common ground for cooperation between Turkey and Iran in near future. The head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization Hakan Fidan accompanied Prime Minister Erdogan during his visit. Erdogan later said that intelligence and security institutions of both countries had discussions on the matter.

Ties are improving between Turkey and Iran. But will their basic geopolitical rivalry overshadow detente? And would a failure of the Iranian nuclear negotiations leave Turkey in a significantly exposed situation?Image Credit: Bigstock
Will the basic geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Turkey overshadow their detente? And would a failure of the Iranian nuclear negotiations leave Turkey in a significantly exposed situation?Image Credit: Bigstock 

Meanwhile, Turkish troops staged retaliatory strikes against ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) positions in northern Syria.

Reportedly, Turkey has been on alert regarding possible attacks of Al Qaeda affiliated groups in Turkish soil. The power vacuum and military gains of ISIS threatens Turkey’s border security.

Furthermore, Turkey is alleged with supporting extremist groups in international media. Ankara will be eager to fix recent damage to its international image.

One of the most significant results of the talks in Tehran was the agreement on starting a High-Level Cooperation Council, though effectiveness of the mechanism remains to be seen.

The cabinet members from both countries will have joint sessions starting from President Hassan Rouhani’s projected visit to Ankara in a few months. Turkey initiated similar diplomatic processes with many countries in recent years. However, at times of crises, it didn’t take too long for diplomatic ties to diminish. Before the civil war in Syria, Turkish and Syrian governments had several joint sessions.

Turkish and Syrian militaries even conducted a joint exercise at a low profile. Plans for a free trade zone which would include Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon were canceled after Ankara initiated several sanctions against Damascus. The process with the Iraqi government was another victim of diplomatic restraints.

Though both governments may benefit from keeping the door open for dialogue, the regional competition and divergences between Turkey and Iran challenges such cooperative initiatives.

Apart from economic relations and energy imports, Turkey’s relationship with Iran has been shaped by Iran’s strain with international community and conflicting strategic objectives of the two countries in the region which primarily reflect to the events in Syria and Iraq.

Iranian officials repeatedly criticized Turkey’s military ties with NATO, especially in ballistic missile defense and the X-Band radar on Turkish soil.

Tehran’s aggressive stance went so far that even top Iranian figures threatened Ankara with targeting various military facilities in Turkish soil in case of a conflict.

As a resurging power in the region with ambitious foreign policy objectives, Turkey has been challenged by Iran’s revisionist world view.

Compartmentalization and ongoing dialogue doesn’t prevent competition.

Iran’s nuclear program threatens Turkey’s national security, especially if it evolves into a military characteristic.

Through nuclear capability, accompanied with Tehran’s ballistic missile proliferation, Iran would be able to change balance of power in the region.

Moreover, Ankara perceives any arms race in the Middle East as a threat for its leadership ambitions. On the other hand, Turkish officials repeatedly opposed sanctions and any military operation. Ankara supports persuasion and diplomacy as sole constructive approach which can strengthen moderates in Iran and limit conservative groups’ reach to decision-making.

Possible retaliation from Iran targeting military facilities in Turkish soil has been a source of concern. Economic outcomes of any operation can hurt Turkey badly since it is dependent on energy imports.

Finally, Turkey has its own peaceful nuclear energy projects, thus Ankara doesn’t intent to support any international action targeting peaceful dimension of Iran’s program.

Various military procurement programs of Turkey aim to bolster its defense capability against missile threats that might be posed by Iran in future crises.

Ankara projects to procure and to develop/co-produce multi-layered air and missile defense systems which can interoperate with NATO systems, as well as a network of assets to strengthen its situational awareness and strategic defensive capabilities.

Turkey is a contributor to the F-35 program though its final decision on amount of procurement is still pending.

Turkish defense industry develops a long range cruise missile and satellites for intelligence purposes. For the long term, an indigenous fifth-generation fighter jet program is at concept designing phase.

Recently, Turkish defense firm ASELSAN was tasked with developing a strategic radar, and the first of long-waited AWACS planes has been deployed for test missions.

The ongoing standoff in Syrian civil war and gains of extremist groups strengthened Iran’s leverages over Turkey.

Syria has been a battlefield of Turkish and Iranian strategies since the prolonged civil war has begun. Along with Hezbollah and Damascus’ airpower assets, Iran’s active role to support regime forces limited the gains of rebel forces supported by Turkey.

Turkish leaders repeatedly mentioned their dissatisfaction with the US and European reluctance to support the anti-Assad forces.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s relations with Iraqi government remain strained despite a recent wave of talks between officials from both administrations.

Ankara’s quest for enhancing oil imports through new deals directly with Iraqi Kurdistan is a major concern for Maliki’s central government.

Nevertheless, Iran has a greater influence over Maliki government since the withdrawal of the US forces, despite recent blowbacks to Iraqi army by the groups related to Al Qaeda.

Though Turkey would benefit from the nuclear deal, in the long term, a resolution of the nuclear issue would bless Iran with economic momentum as well as political self-confidence to support its deep-rooted ambitions of regional primacy. Furthermore, it would be able to share some threat based interests with the US in Afghanistan and in the Middle East.

Although Turkey’s ties and shared interests with its traditional allies in the West are strong enough to guarantee preventing a rupture with the US, NATO or Europe, Turkey’s municipal, presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014 and 2015 signal some degree of instability in domestic politics and relations with the West.

Prime Minister Erdogan and his cabinet tend to follow a harsh rhetoric at times of internal crises.

Moreover, Erdogan’s handling of domestic political issues, mounting economic worries and dissatisfaction with foreign policy increases the pressure over the government.

Thus, until Turkey gets stabilized and a new balance of power will be established internally, Ankara’s traditional allies in the West would have to manage some ups and -especially- downs to prevent more damages to their relations with an important NATO ally.

Turkey’s changing self-perception was one of the pillars of new foreign policy approach, built and implemented by the current administration.

In addition to utilizing Turkey’s historical and cultural ties with the Middle East, the current approach sees morality as an indispensable element of foreign policy.

Thus, Turkish policy elite were not able to reflect to the developments in Egypt or Syria. Turkish government is not in a position to defend a new warmer relationship with Israel. Taking morality as the primary element in policy making and discourse limits Turkey’s elasticity in a volatile environment.

Besides, important figures in Turkish government keep using a narrative of moral causes to make gains during domestic political crises.

In recent years, Turkey’s well known policies and behavior which create divergence with the US include topics such as Iran, Syria, Egypt, Israel, defense contracts and Erdogan’s repeated remarks on joining the SCO.

All of the mentioned “crises” have been correlated with some aggressive and morality based rhetoric and policy making in Ankara.

To better handle the double-edged sword with Iran, Turkey needs to rely on its real strengths: liberal democratization, rule of law, and NATO alliance.

Baris Kirdemir is a MPhil candidate at National Defence University, Islamabad