Since the advent of the Syrian Revolution and tightening transatlantic sanctions against Iran in 2011, Tehran and Ankara have had a particularly tough time maintaining a facade of mutual amity and cooperation.
Last December, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hastily cancelled a cultural trip to Turkey, where he was scheduled to meet Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of a ceremony commemorating the 13th century Persian poet Jalal al-din Rumi. While Iran’s Mehr News Agency cited Ahmadinejad’s busy agenda as a pretext for the decision, it is widely believed that it came in response to the Iranian regime’s admonition of the Turkish agreement to install NATO Patriot Missiles on its Southern border with Syria.
Then, earlier this year, Turkish President Abdullah Gül, in an interview with Foreign Affairs, went as far as to say, “Turkey will not accept a neighboring country possessing weapons not possessed by Turkey herself…we are not underestimating this matter in any way.” What is striking about his statement is not so much the knee-jerk anti-proliferation diplomatic correctness echoed among NATO members’ officials, but rather the emphasis on the regional balance of power: Turkey will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon because that would mean Turkish vulnerability and Iranian superiority.
These tit-for-tat expressions of disenchantment underline the degree to which Turkish-Iranian relations have entered a renewed period of estrangement, after years of progressive rapprochement between Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Iran’s clerical establishment, which saw Ankara emerge as Tehran’s key energy partner as well as interlocutor with Washington.
Although the recent discord is neither a novelty (the Safavid and Ottoman empires competed for regional hegemony for centuries) nor a big surprise, what is most astonishing is how the very same issues that served as the linchpin of Iran-Turkish partnership in recent years — namely Syria and the Iranian nuclear conundrum — are now pitting the two neighbors against each other.
Yet one thing that continues to bind the two countries is the simple, old-fashioned issue of hydro carbon riches. This is precisely why both sides continue to exercise caution with their mutual engagements, including Syria’s future, despite occasional rhetorical flare-ups. Indeed, Turkey has heavily resisted Washington’s recent calls for reduction of energy imports from Iran (and the suspension of precious metals trade as payment), underscoring the importance of bilateral energy relations.
However, with the Iranian nuclear saga entering a crucial stage of high-stakes negotiations this year, and the Syrian revolution turning into an all-out civil war, both sides are headed for a decisive moment in their bilateral ties.
As early as 2010, Iran and Turkey projected an image of solid partnership, anchored on a straightforward bargain: Turkey needed Iran for energy security and international influence while Tehran needed its neighbor to resist sanctions and reach out to the West. The partnership, albeit transient and conditional, was multifaceted, covering a variety of issues ranging from trade, finance and energy to cultural exchanges and politico-security cooperation.
While Turkish and Iranian security forces are said to have jointly engaged Kurdish separatist groups on multiple occasions, Ankara has also played a prominent role in facilitating Iran-West nuclear talks, culminating in the 2010 Brazil-Turkey-sponsored nuclear swap deal, followed by the Istanbul I (2011) and Istanbul II (2012) high-level nuclear talks between Iran and the 6-world powers P5+1 group.
However, at the heart of their relationship lies a key economic issue: (i) Turkey’s high energy import-dependence, 93 percent in oil and 95 percent in natural gas (2008 figures) and (ii) its over-reliance, in that regard, on Russia, from which it imported 66 percent of its gas in 2005. While Iran’s vast hydrocarbon reserves are important to Turkey’s energy security, the two sides have also laid their gaze on a broader trans-regional pipeline network, which could transform both sides into global energy brokers. In 2011, bilateral trade stood at more than $16 billion, projected to expand up to $30 billion in 2015.
But by mid-2011, a promising partnership appeared to be heading for the rocks. Turkey agreed to station a NATO missile defense shield on its Eastern borders, despite Iran’s vehement opposition, prompting Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s (IRGC) aerospace chief, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, to warn, “Should we be threatened, we will target NATO’s missile defense shield in Turkey and then hit the next targets.” This was followed by another incident wherein Iranian security-intelligence personnel temporarily detained and interrogated three Turkish academics on charges of espionage. Then, under US pressure, Ankara reduced its Iranian oil imports by as much as 20 percent, followed by prevarications on its willingness to act as a financial intermediary — through the state-owned Halk bank — to process Iran’s multi-billion oil trade deals with countries such as India — in effect, contributing to the economic siege on Iran.
As the Syrian revolution turned more violent and Turkey transformed into the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) main foreign patron, bilateral ties suffered further, with the Iranian Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Seyed Hassan Firouzabadi ominously warning Turkey, “it will be its turn [if it continues to] to help advance the warmongering policies of the United States in Syria.” To up the ante, Iran suspended visa-free arrangements with Turkey and hinted at potentially downgrading security cooperation with Ankara, perhaps on the Kurdish issue.
Turkish officials struck back, accusing Iran of hosting PKK rebels and contributing to the oppression of the Syrian people. Then came Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Ar?nç’s warning that his country would do “whatever is required” to counter the Iranian threat, ignoring incessant efforts by Iran’s foreign ministry to downplay statements from the security branches. To cool bilateral tensions, Ahmadinejad extended a letter of invitation to his Turkish counterpart to attend the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Tehran, to no avail. A few months later, when Turkey responded to Syrian artillery attacks by agreeing to host Patriot missile-defense systems, Iran — along with Russia — criticized the decision vehemently, fearing Ankara (or NATO) could also use it against Tehran in the future.
Depending on how the Syrian conflict unfolds, as well as the dynamics of the Iranian nuclear program, we may be entering a renewed phase of confrontation between the two powers in which either side can inflict considerable damage on the other. Serious recognition of that fact by leaders in both countries may yet work to stabilize an increasingly volatile relationship.
Photo: Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim (L), Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C), Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2nd L), Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (2nd R) and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu hold their hands as sign of unity during the 32nd Meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of G-15 in Tehran May 17, 2010. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl (IRAN – Tags: POLITICS ENERGY)