by Reza Akhlaghi
As the region undergoes a significant period of change marked by unforeseen uncertainties and high geopolitical risks, key regional states jockey to identify and carve out a new foreign policy direction to ensure their strategic interests are protected.
Nowhere these uncertainties and high risks are more pronounced than in Iraq and its neighbor to the west, Syria. The security and political crises in Iraq have left a big question mark about Iraq’s viability as a unitary socio-political entity. And in Syria, the lingering civil war and its spillover effect in Iraq, Lebanon, and increasingly in Jordan, is pushing the region into unchartered territory, posing serious threats of region-wide sectarianism. Adding to the mix of uncertainty is the absence of a well-articulated strategy by the United States and what some observers believe to be an American regional leadership in disarray.
In light of the above geopolitical uncertainties and Erdogan’s recent presidential victory, the dynamics of Turkish-Iranian relations could undergo a whole new phase. The new phase in relations could force the two regional heavyweights to redefine some of their key strategic imperatives with converging and diverging interests changing hands.
The rise of the Islamic State in Levant and Iraq, a resurgent Russian foreign policy, and increasing prospects for re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Iran will determine the dynamics of Turkish-Iranian relations for the next several years to come.
Converging and Diverging Interests
In light of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy in Eurasia and the extent of Moscow’s influence over Europe’s energy needs, export of Iranian energy to Europe through Turkish territory has emerged as an area where Turkish-Iranian interests converge. However, for the realization of this vision, Iran needs to unshackle itself from the U.S.-led international sanctions. The removal of sanctions against Iran would serve Iran and Turkey well particularly in the area of energy as it would enable Turkish and Western energy companies to invest in Iran’s energy market. For Turkey, the removal of sanctions against Iran would also enable Turkey’s private sector to invest in a whole range of sectors of the Iranian economy without the stigma attached to doing business with Iran and the risk of associated penalties.
Iraq has been an area that Iran and Turkey have jockeyed for influence since Saddam’s fall in 2003. Central to Iranian strategic depth and a buffer zone against Sunni militancy and influence, Iraq today is an indispensable component in Iranian foreign policy calculations. However, Turkey has been critical of Iran’s foreign policy conduct in post-Saddam Iraq, which Ankara has viewed as being sectarian and based on marginalizing Iraq’s Sunni minorities. Turkey also saw Nuri al-Maliki’s now defunct government as an extension of Iran’s regional hand, while Maliki and Tehran became increasingly concerned about Turkey’s warming relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan.
Today with the unraveling of Iraq’s security structure, many observers of the Middle East and Iranian affairs believe that the breathtaking success of the Islamic State in Iraq is largely the result of Iranian foreign policy conduct, which in their view, eventually blew up in Tehran’s face. Now Iran and Turkey could put their differences aside and cooperate in Iraq to stem the rise of IS and work toward improving the country’s security. Turkey and Iran do not want to see regional sectarian war.
Syria is another area where Turkey’s interests have diverged from those of Iran due to sectarian and geopolitical factors at play. While in the early stages of the Syrian uprising Turkey was adamant on the ouster of Bashar Assad, Iran dedicated resources and manpower to preserving the Assad regime and ensuring Tehran’s access to the Levant region remains uninterrupted. With the Syrian uprising morphing into a full-fledged civil war, Turkey found itself increasingly burdened with massive influx of refugees and a key corridor for the entry of radical insurgents into Syria. Today with the onslaught of IS in Syria and Iraq and its demonstration of unprecedented savagery and promotion of sectarianism, Turkey has been under pressure to change its calculus vis-à-vis the need for Assad’s ouster. These developments have somewhat aligned Ankara’s interests with those of Tehran, but geopolitical rivalries between the two are certain to resurface once a political roadmap is defined for Syria and the country starts the path of reconstruction.
Turkey and Iran do not see eye to eye on the Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey would regard an independent Kurdistan as a geopolitical tool that could be used to diminish Iran’s influence in a united Iraq with a Shia government beholden to Tehran, while Tehran has always been wary of the Kurds’ close ties to Israel and of their improving relations with Turkey. The Iranians would want to see Iraq united so that their access to Levant is not impeded by a neighbor potentially split into three independent states. Iraq’s disintegration would force Iran to dedicate more resources to protect its regional interests. Iran’s other concern is the potential ripple effect of an independent Kurdistan on its own Kurdish and other minorities and on Tehran’s ability to manage their dynamics.
According to Turkish Statistical Institute, trade volume between Iran and Turkey in the first half of 2014 hit $6.5 billion, which for the whole year is expected to reach $13 billion. Over the past decade under the Erdogan premiership, trade between Iran and Turkey has been steadily on the rise. Increasingly under Erdogan, Turkey has come to view Iran as a strategic market due to Iran’s untapped potential, its well-educated population, and cultural and linguistic affinities between the two countries. The latter is largely the result of the influence Turkey has built in post-revolutionary Iran through Turkish cultural products, making most Iranians big fans of Turkish goods and products, including Turkish movies, soap operas, actors and actresses. It is not hard to find an Iranian today who can put a few sentences in Turkish due to his/her fascination with Turkish movies and soap operas.
Another important factor drawing the two countries closer is the strength and diversity of Turkish private sector, which can benefit the Iranian market especially from a logistical perspective thanks to geographic vicinity. Also, Iran’s poorly managed and corruption-stricken economy has seriously impeded the development of an independent and vibrant private sector. Therefore, Turkey has a great deal to offer Iran in trade and private sector management.
In 2012 the trade volume between the two countries was over $22 billion, which dropped in the two subsequent years due to Western-led sanctions against Iran. The steep drop in trade volume was the result of the closure of a trade loophole that Turkey used to bypass international sanctions and continue doing business with Iran by exporting gold to Iran in exchange for import of Iranian natural gas. However, despite the drop, the two countries have stated that they are determined to double their trade volume to $30 billion by 2016. These numbers suggest that trade potential between Tehran and Ankara remains very significant and largely untapped.
As the first Turkish president voted into office by popular vote and with the country’s “Zero Problem” foreign policy doctrine in tatters and part of a distant past, Erdogan will be charting a new direction for Turkey with a new foreign policy outlook, and Iran will be an integral part of that outlook.