Iran – Turkey Relations under Focus with the Syrian Crisis

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Nasser Sagahfi-Ameri
31 ارديبهشت 1391

        Iran's change of mind regarding the venue of the nuclear talks with 5+1(US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany), now well known as Istanbul II, surprised Turkey. In what seemed to be a friendly gesture by Iran for nuclear cooperation with Turkey and in the process of many agreements that were agreed and signed between two countries during the visit of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and his delegation to Iran, Iranian official's purposed nuclear cooperation including construction of joint nuclear power plants in Turkey. Surprisingly, the Turkish minister involved in the negotiations, immediately in a press conference, and in a non- diplomatic language rebuffed any kind of nuclear cooperation with Iran.  That stance on the eve of nuclear talks in Istanbul prompted some members of Iranian parliament and public media to question the merit of having talks in Istanbul while arrogance was displayed by a Turkish official on the nuclear issue that is very important to Iran.  Although the matter soon came to close after the intervention of Turkish Foreign Minister  Davutoğlu; but, given the nuances in diplomatic jargons, it looks that Iran wished to pass a signal to its neighbor and friend that it is was not pleased with some of recent Turkish policies; notably, NATO's Malatya-based ballistic missile early warning radar system, and moreover on Turkey's stance on Iraq and Syria.

      Iranian –Turkish relations have enjoyed peaceful and mostly friendly relations for more than four centuries. Needless to say, that these relations were not without challenges; especially by some countries who envy cordial relations between Iran and Turkey, the two most powerful nations in the region.  In a general appraisal of Iran-Turkey relations, one tends to note that strength of their relations stems, among other things, from the fact that both countries takes into account the other side's fundamental interests. It is thus important to evaluate these relations from time to time; especially when there are new developments appearing in the horizon that might negatively impact these relations. There are indeed many valid arguments that emphasize present close ties between Iran and Turkey that are broad based and on multiple platforms.  

        In security field, both countries share common interests in several areas; including their joint efforts against illegal drugs that are mostly originated from Afghanistan, and fight against insurgency and separatism, especially with regard to PKK and its small sister PEJAK. But, trade and economy are the most fertile ground for boosting Iran and Turkey relations. The level of 15 billion of trade between two countries is earmarked to double in a span of few years. Iran is the major source and provider of energy (oil, gas and electricity) for Turkey. Turkey serves as one of the main transit routes linking Iran to Europe. Similarly, Iran connects Turkey to Central and South Asia. In recent years, Turkey has become one of the most favored tourist destinations for Iranians. Thus, cultural and people to people contacts through trade and tourism are strong; serving as a backbone for their booming relations. Of course, this cordial relation is not fully immune to challenges, and therefore it needs to be safeguarded by both sides.  Turkey's stance on the Syrian crisis prompted some observers on the opposite camp of Iran-Turkey friendship to gleefully say that relation is witnessing a divide. However, given the importance of the issue the following analysis and conclusion can be drawn:

      After the Arab Spring, Turkey's venture in to this process to become a model for new Arab governments stirred some anxiety in Iran; especially when Prime Minister Erdogan in his visit to Cairo advocated a secular model as an ideal design for governments in the Arab world. Some observers speculated   that a tacit agreement was reached between Turkey and the United States, in which Turkey was granted the leading role for reshaping the Arab world according to a secular model, and to avert any Islamic system emerging in the region. In the same vein, and as a sign of new alignment between Turkey and America, critics pointed to the Turkey's acceptance, of course after some hesitation and delay, to station the radars of American ballistic missile defense system in Malatya. After Iran's strong reaction to that plan, Turkish authorities said that the systems were not aimed at Iran. That position by Turkey, further angered Russians who from the beginning believed that the systems were deployed against Russian missile systems. In a statement that further embarrassed Turkey, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton declared that those systems were indeed deployed against Iran. Her statement apparently was intended to calm down the Russians who are extremely excited and suspicious of the American plan.

     The growing tension between Turkey and Iraq may have its toll on the Iran-Turkey relations too. Since the planned withdrawal of the US force from Iraq became final, Turkey emerged as the prime candidate to fill the vacuum left by the departing American forces from Iraq. It was argued that Turkey, as a secular  Muslim country and as a member of NATO has the right credential. But, it seems that everything did't went well as was planned and desirable. Although, Iraq is Turkey's second largest trading partner, there are serious tensions appearing in their relations. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan after a meeting in Istanbul with Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), who has cultivated close relations with Ankara, accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of fanning tensions between the country's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds with his "self-centered" ways. In response, the Iraqi Prime Minister branded Turkey a "hostile state" with a sectarian agenda.  Maliki has accused Turkey of trying to establish "hegemony" in the region. Turkey always fears that the rise of the Shias and spiraling violence in Iraq would eventually result in the country's division along the ethnic lines. In that process northern Iraq would become a separate Kurdish state, attracting the Kurds in Turkey.

     When Shiite-led government in Iraq in December, sought an arrest warrant for Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi on charges he ran death squads, once again sectarian tensions flared out. Hashemi and several bodyguards are charged with killing six judges and senior officials, including a lawyer and the director general of the security ministry in Iraq.  After fleeing to Qatar and Saudi Arabia Hashemi is now staying in Turkey. Erdogan in support of Hashemi said he was in his country for health reasons as well as for political contacts. Those remarks by Erdogan came after Interpol said it had issued an international Red Notice for the arrest of Hashemi to all of its 190 member countries “on suspicion of guiding and financing terrorist attacks.”

     Erdogan has warned before that Turkey, which is mainly Sunni but officially secular, would not remain silent if a sectarian conflict was to erupt in Iraq. The rifts between Baghdad and Irbil recently worsened when KRG said it was halting oil exports because the central government was not paying oil firms operating in the north. Turkey is reportedly taking the side of the KRG on this lucrative deal. But it is not clear, given Ankara's deep-seated fears concerning its restive Kurdish population, how Ankara mitigates a separate deal with the KRG that could eventually undermine the Iraq's central government authority.

     The city of Kirkuk is also at the heart of a dispute between the central government and the KRG, which claims the city and the region's rich oil reserves.   An optimal policy, according to the Iranians, is the one that refrains from exacerbating the present sectarian tensions, and by engaging both the Maliki government and the KRG in order to assist them to come to an agreement over the status of disputed internal boundaries and a federal hydrocarbons law.

          In Syria, Turkey is clearly on the side of the opposition forces. Turkey as an immediate neighbor of Syria has legitimate concerns regarding its security and what is happening next door. In the eventuality that Syrian crisis morphs in to a civil war, if it had not already taken that plunge, then Turkey would find itself stuck between a rock and a hard place.  But, despite denunciation of al-Assad regime, Turkey has remained silent on the need for change in the Persian Gulf region, and particularly about the uprising in Bahrain. On the necessity of reforms in Syria, like elsewhere, there seems to be little or no differences of opinion among all countries. The differences appear when it comes to the processes and implementation of the prescribed reforms; and more importantly, how to have reforms without resorting to violence or foreign interference. As in the case of Iraq, ethnic and sectarian issues have dominated the Syrian scene. For what relates directly to Turkey, it is important to note that Syrian Alevites are close relatives of Alevites of Turkey who have a population of 20 million people in that country.

       Thus, the complexity of Syrian society and involvement of radical groups like Al Qaeda suggests reforms or change of regime in Syria to be carried out through democratic processes and without resorting to violence. The alternative is arms struggle, and Syria descending into a civil war, with potential to spill over to the neighboring and regional countries. As it has become clear now the Al-Qaeda has been active among Syrian opposition and has been in fact infiltrated the opposition groups. After at least 55 people were killed and 372 others were wounded in blasts in Damascus on May 10, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General, blamed al-Qaeda for the bombings. His statement came when there are 257 UN monitors in Syria to observe a truce negotiated by UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan. Director of the US's National Intelligence, James R. Clapper has also confirmed in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee that indeed al-Qaeda is present among the militant groups fighting Syrian government. The official acknowledgement by both the UN and the US concerning the presence of al Qaeda in Syrian crisis has the potential to change the present game plan and eventually weigh on the side of the political reforms taken by Al Assad in Syria.

     While the world faces a number of global and regional problems, Iran and Turkey remain the two main pillars of stability in the turbulent region of the Middle East. Despite some misunderstandings and contradictions they share views on many fundamental issues of the regional politics. Thus their role for bringing peace and stability in the region could substantially enhance if well-balanced and broad based diplomacy becomes the motto of both sides.