In this article, we shall discuss the current international relations between Iran and Turkey. We will analyze the relationship between the two countries, with primarily attention to their respective roles and interests in Syria. We will then discuss how Turkey and Iran are attempting to improve ties on issues of economics, politics, etc…
Turkey and Iran are two countries in the Middle East. Since World War I, both Turkey and Iran were independent states not directly controlled by an outside foreign power (such as Britain or France). Following the war, Iran and Turkey both had secular leaders of their respective states (with the Shah in Iran, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey). Along with their similarities with regards to secular regimes, both Iran and Turkey had stronger relations with western powers such as Britain, and then later, the United States. In fact, The United States brought Turkey into NATO in the early 1950s, and also helped the Shah come back into power in 1953. They did so by removing Mohammed Mossadegh, and reinstalling the Shah into power. Then, they supported the Shah until the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Interestingly, it has been argued that the events in Iran in 1979 also had an impact on the domestic politics of Turkey. For example, Firooz Dowlatabadi, who served as Iran’s Ambassador to Turkey, is quoted as saying ““When studying the history of relations between these two countries, we can see numerous examples of such influences. After the victory of the  Islamic Revolution in Iran, Islamist movements started to flourish in Turkey. When Khatami won the presidential elections and the Reformists gained power in Iran, it had an impact on the Justice and Development Party of Turkey’s electoral victory. These changes did not occur independent of one another, considering the fact that both of these countries play pivotal roles in the region” (Jafari, 2015).
Recent Relations Between Iran and Turkey
The relationship between Iran and Turkey has continued to become increasingly tense in recent years. One of the main reasons for the strained relations have to do with the Syrian conflict. When the conflict began in 2011, Iran, a strong ally to Bashar al-Assad, spoke out in support of the regime. Then, as the years went on, Iran became increasingly involved in the Syrian conflict, sending in military to support the Al-Assad regime. They have been working together, along with Russia, and also Hezbollah.
Iran’s position is troubling to Turkey. Erdogan, the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), is opposed to the Al-Assad regime. Turkey has been adamant about removing al-Assad from power (but also going after Kurdish forces, something the United States is not in agreement with. Even Iran, while they say little about the Kurdish situation, may be willing to allow them to fight, given that they are not getting in the direct way of Al-Assad’s primary interests in the country. But Iran and Turkey do agree that neither wants an independent Kurdish state (Solomon, 2016)).
For Turkey, Erdogan has suggested that Iranian presence in Syria, even if it is fighting the Islamic State, is because of Iran’s goal, which, to Erdogan, is “only to take its place.” He also said that Iran is looking to gain dominance in the Middle East, and the Turkey cannot allow that to happen (Peterson, 2016). In response, Zarif was quoted as saying that Turkey is responsible for “irreparable damage from their own strategic mistakes” (Peterson, 2016).
However, it is important to note that there are other issues that Turkey and Iran disagree on. For example, “Turkey’s all but transparent policies toward IS have further strained relations with Iran. Dowlatabadi, the former Iranian envoy to Ankara, told Al-Monitor, “Turkey made a mistake in becoming the supply source for IS in the region, and it has only now realized how problematic this policy has been for it. Its other mistake was trying to blame its troubles on Iran, since Iran is fighting IS” (Jafari, 2015).
The question of late has been how much of an impact has the different positions in Syria had on Iranian-Turkish relations. The leaders of the two countries are continuing to speak with one another. However, “the atmosphere does not appear very cordial. Just before his most recent visit to Tehren, Erdogan did an interview with France 24 in which he spoke of Iran’s role in the region as being irresponsible. This generated a lot of objections in Iran…” (Jafari, 2015).
And earlier, in 2015, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif cancelled a trip to Turkey at the last minute. Many believe this was due to an opinion piece he wrote calling out the AKP for their actions in the Middle East (Jafari, 2015). Then, “A few days later, Turkey’s ambassador to Tehran was summoned by Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs over concerns for the safety of Iranian citizens in Turkey. This was after a bus carrying Iranian travelers was attacked on its way to the Turkish city of Van, near the Iranian border” (Jafari, 2015).
Working to Improve Relations between Iran and Turkey
Despite the disagreements between Iran and Turkey on the issue of Al-Assad and Syria more generally, there have been more recent attempts to improve relations between the two countries. For example, In April of 2016, Erdogan and Turkey hosted the Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attended this event, and in doing so, there has been belief that the two countries are working on improving ties within one another.
These attempts at improving Iranian-Turkish ties is not done so with the two sides having resolved their differences on Syria. However, they recognize that even though there is staunch disagreement on that issue, that both Iran and Turkey could gain by working with one another. For Iran, they are becoming increasingly shut out by many other countries in the Middle East (led by Saudi Arabia). For Turkey, they are also in a series of international relations issues with those in the region. Thus, by working on improving trade ties, along with any other forms of cooperation, this could help both countries.
Iran and Turkey have actually been finalizing a series of agreements between one another. For example, “The two countries have inked numerous deals, from lowering customs, banking, and transport barriers to setting up a $350 million credit line, Iranian media report. Deals were also done on stock exchange cooperation and boosting electricity provision from Iran as well as oil and gas sector investments from Turkey. The aim is to triple trade to $30 billion per year, officials from both sides say, especially after the mid-2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers led to sanctions being partially lifted from Iran in January” (Peterson, 2016).
Rouhani has continued to speak about the importance of continuing to foster an economic relationship between the two countries. As Ertem (2016), writes: “Delivering statements after the third Turkey-Iran High-Level Cooperation Council meeting in Ankara, Rouhani said that one of the most important issues was that the banking sectors of both countries must be engaged in more active cooperation. Stressing that cooperation between the Istanbul and Tehran stock exchanges must be cemented further, Rouhani noted that Turkish and Iranian banks have set up some channels to carry out mutual projects. He pointed to new areas of cooperation and made important statements about energy and energy security.”
While the attention on Iranian-Turkish relations seems to be a centerpiece of the discussions, the two countries are also trying to improve non-economic ties. Again, Turkey and Iran’s main rival–Saudi Arabia–both want Al-Assad gone. But this does not meet that Turkey is willing to ignore Iran in the process. It has been argued that “The Turkish government is carefully walking a tightrope in building relations with both Iran and its regional archival Saudi Arabia, in addition to Israel” (Solomon, 2016).
In addition, there is actually hope by some that Turkey could play a key role as a mediator, not only in Syria, but Erdogan also has suggested that Turkey would be in the best position to serve this function between Iranian-Saudi relations (Peterson, 2016).
Furthermore, a common interest in fighting terrorism is also something that could drive the two states to work more with one another (Peterson, 2016).
Iran-Turkey Relations References
Ertem, C. (2016). A new era in Turkish-Iranian relations. Daily Sabah, April 20th, 2016. Available Online: http://www.dailysabah.com/columns/cemil-ertem/2016/04/20/a-new-era-in-turkish-iranian-relations
Jafari, S. (2015). After tumultuous history, what’s next for Turkish-Iranian relations? Al-Monitor, September 11, 2015. Available Online: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/09/iran-turkey-relations.html
Peterson, S. (2016). Despite deep divides over Syria, Turkey rolls out the welcome mat for Iran. The Christian Science Monitor, April 14, 2016. Available Online: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2016/0414/Despite-deep-divides-over-Syria-Turkey-rolls-out-the-welcome-mat-for-Iran
Solomon, A.B. (2016). Analysis: Turkey trying to balance relations between Iran, Saudis. Jerusalem Post, April 20th, 2016. Available Online: http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Analysis-Turkey-trying-to-balance-relations-between-Iran-Saudis-451759