Asharq Alawsat (English)
January 31, 2014 Friday

Iran-Turkey Relations: Between Competition and Cooperation

Asharq Al-Awsat

-Following Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to
Tehran earlier this week, it appears that relations between the two
regional powers are once more on the rise. This rapprochement follows
a cooling of ties as a consequence of the ongoing Syrian conflict in
which the two regional powers are backing different horses. Erdogan's
visit to the Iranian capital concluded with the establishment of a
Turkish-Iranian high-level cooperation council, in addition to mutual
pledges to extend bilateral trade over the coming year.

"I hope 2014 will be a milestone year for both countries and that we
reach a 30 billion US dollar trade volume by the end of 2015," Erdogan
said from Tehran, adding that he views Iran as his "second home."
While Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham affirmed:
"Our relations with Turkey have entered a new phase and we hope this
trend continues. Besides serving the interests of the two countries,
we hope our dialogue [with Turkey will] serve regional interests as

Both Iran and Turkey's imperial legacy of rivalry continues to
influence the state of diplomatic relations today. With the collapse
of the Ottoman Empire and the ascent to power in Turkey of the
secularists under the leadership of Mustafa Kamal Atatürk, relations
between Iran and Turkey began to blossom. On April 22, 1926, Turkey
and Iran signed their first official "treaty of friendship" in Tehran.
A few years later, the first official border treaty was signed between
the two powers, an officially bilateral agreement on the demarcation
of the Iranian-Turkish borders which had remained virtually unchanged
since the 15th century.

Following the Second World War, the countries grew closer in the face
of "the Soviet threat" and stood as bulwarks against Communist
expansion in the region. During this period, secularist Turkey and the
Shah's Iran forged an alliance with the United States, developing
their military capabilities and securing greater dominance in their
respective regions. However, change was on the horizon.

The period of 1979-1980 was one of great change in the region, not
least for Iran and Turkey. Iran witnessed the end of the Pahlavi
dynasties and the birth of the Islamic Republic, which promptly took a
confrontational stand against the US and its allies. As for Turkey,
military officer Kenan Evren led a military coup in 1980, taking over
the state. As a result, Iranian-Turkish relations experienced a period
of détente following these political upheavals. Bilateral relations
recovered somewhat during the Iran-Iraq War, with Tehran making
overtures to Ankara for economic relief.

In comments to

Asharq Al-Awsat

, Mehmet Sahin, a professor of international relations at Turkey's
Gazi University and an expert on Iranian affairs at Ankara's Institute
for Strategic Thinking, affirmed that relations between Iran and
Turkey were significantly affected by the events of 1979 and 1980. He
added that since the Islamic Revolution, relations between Tehran and
Ankara have remained at a historically low level.

"This stems from two reasons: first, the historical political struggle
between the two countries, and second, the disturbance that the
success of the Iranian revolution caused for countries in the region,
especially Turkey," Sahin said.

Linking the Islamic Revolution with the subsequent military coup in
Turkey, Sahin described the birth of the Islamic Republic as the
"direct cause" for Kenan Evren's coup.

A new regional conflict between Iran and Turkey broke out following
the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing chaos that governed
this period, with each country attempting to secure and expand its own
regional influence. Turkey rushed to sign several economic and
cultural agreements with post-Soviet States while tensions between
Tehran and Ankara escalated over Azerbaijan and Armenia.

After the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power
in Turkey in 2002, relations between Tehran and Ankara improved
considerably over the past decade, but remained captive to low-level
sectarian dissonance.

Dr. Naseeb Hateet, a Lebanese expert on Iranian affairs, affirmed that
Tehran had sought to neutralize the growing influence of Sunni
political Islam in the region, putting an end to the traditional
Sunni-Shi'ite strife, at least on a political level. This was largely
out of self-interest, as this phenomenon had begun to affect Iran's
role and position in the region. It was this need that ultimately
prompted the Turkish-Iranian rapprochement.

Speaking to

Asharq Al-Awsat

, Hateet said it was the twinned attraction of an Islamist party
ruling a secular political system that prompted Iranian interest in
strengthening its ties with Turkey.

Although this rapprochement has witnessed a significant step-back
following the Syrian crisis, political experts have warned against
overstating the Iranian-Turkish rift.

"The geopolitical situation in the Middle East may change, but there
will always be agreements between countries on the basis of shared
interests regardless of differences in opinion on a particular topic
or dilemma. For this reason, I believe that the closer Iran grows to
the West, the more likely it will abandon some of its stances on Iraq,
Lebanon and Syria. Iran will sell out Syria to the West if an
agreement and reconciliation can be reached, particularly as Iran is
experiencing its own economic problems," Hateet said.

The most recent step in the Turkish--Iranian diplomatic dance appears
to demonstrate that relations between Tehran and Ankara are waxing,
not waning. Following last year's historic Geneva nuclear agreement
between Tehran and the P5+1 group of states-the five permanent members
of the UN Security Council, plus Germany-Iran appears to be taking a
less intransigent diplomatic line, even taking into account its
involvement in Syria. As for Erdogan, he is in dire need of a
diplomatic victory, particularly in light of the numerous domestic
challenges currently facing his government, not least the ongoing
graft scandal. Erdogan was tellingly accompanied by Turkey's economy
and energy ministers in this week's visit to Iran, and a number of
non-political agreements were signed between the two sides.

"I would like to mention specifically, and to express my satisfaction
with, the agreement we signed on the preferential trade area," Erdogan
said this week, adding that Ankara is set to announce an increase in
the volume of oil and gas imports from Iran in the coming days.

"Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's relations with
neighboring countries, particularly Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, have been
damaged following recent events. This means that Iran is the only
potential regional ally for Turkey," Hateet said.

Hateet informed

Asharq Al-Awsat

that there is clear Turkish interest in responding to Iranian
overtures, adding that, at this point, Turkey needs Iran more than
Tehran needs Ankara. In this case, it is extremely likely that the
forthcoming period will see Turkey and Iran strengthening their
bilateral relations, despite any lingering issues over the Syrian

President of Turkey's Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, Dr.
Saban Kardas backed this reading of events. He told Asharq Al-Awsat:
"Despite the differences in opinion between Turkey and Iran on some
regional issues, they are compelled to cooperate with one another by
virtue of the fact that they are neighbors, and based on their own
relations with other neighboring countries."

In view of all of this, Kardas said that he believes that Iran and
Turkey are "destined to cooperation."

"Turkey needs Iran as much as Iran needs Turkey. They are the
strongest countries in the region, economically and geopolitically.
They are both smart enough to approach their relationship from areas
of agreement, not from areas of contention."

This concept was echoed by the Iranian Foreign Ministry earlier this
week. "As two neighbors and Muslim countries, Iran and Turkey enjoy
many commonalities and many cooperation opportunities," said Iranian
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham. Therefore, while
political ties between the two countries have waxed and waned in the
recent period according to national interests, economic cooperation
has held steady. Iranian officials estimate that trade between the
countries stood at 22 billion dollars in 2012, dipping to around 20
billion dollars in 2013, and rising to 30 billion dollars by the end
of 2015.

Turul Ismail, a professor at Ankara's TOBB University of Economics and
Technology, acknowledged that while modern relations between Iran and
Turkey have always been in a state of perpetual motion, vacillating
between confrontation and cooperation, both sides have always erred on
the side of cooperation.

In exclusive comments to

Asharq Al-Awsat

, Ismail said: "The two countries bear the same geopolitical
importance but are characterized by different forms of government, and
so it is only natural that there would be some rivalry. However, as
Turkey is the gateway to the West and Iran is the gateway to the East,
these two countries need each other."

"Therefore, and regardless of the competition or rivalry between the
two countries, Iran and Turkey are destined to cooperation. We could
describe this situation as 'cooperation amid competition.'"

From: A. Papazian