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Why Iran-Turkey tension won’t spiral out of control

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Al-monitor -
 Relations between Iran and Turkey have long displayed a sinusoidal cycle, with ups and downs. On Feb. 13, speaking at the International Peace Institute in Bahrain, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan added fuel to the fire of the regional conflict between Tehran and Ankara by saying, "There are those who are working to divide Iraq. There is a sectarian and ethnic struggle there because of the question of Persian nationalism. ... We also have to prevent this in Syria and do what is necessary together with the Gulf [states], because we cannot just sit back — and will not sit back — in the face of oppression."


AUTHOR Saeid Jafari

A few days later, on Feb. 19, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at the Munich Security Conference, "Iran is trying to turn Syria and Iraq into two Shiite states," adding, "This has to be stopped. Security and stability in the region can only be secured then."

Both comments were criticized by Iran. On the same day as Cavusoglu's remarks, Iranian Foreign Minister spokesman Bahram Qassemi described the comments made by the Turkish foreign minister as "counterproductive" and said, "They should know that instability and insecurity in the region is caused by them and a few other delusional states. Those who dream about the return of empires, who have caused bloodshed and escalated tensions in the region by their unlawful and interventionist actions, they cannot play the blame game and instead need to shoulder the responsibility for their actions." A day later, on Feb. 20, the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Turkish ambassador to object to the comments made by Cavusoglu and Erdogan.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also reacted, telling the government-run Iran daily Tasnim News on Feb. 24, "Our friends in Turkey have a short-term memory. They accuse Iran of sectarianism but don't remember that on the night of the coup d'etat, we stayed up all night for the sake of their government, which is not even Shiite. They have a short memory, and they are ungrateful to those who have been kind to them."

However, while tensions have escalated between the two neighbors, the recent Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) summit in Pakistan presented an opportunity for both countries to reduce friction. Indeed, on March 1, President Hassan Rouhani and his Turkish counterpart met on the sidelines of the ECO meeting and emphasized the importance of expanding cooperation, especially in the economic sphere.

On the same day, Cavusoglu reacted to Zarif's criticism during an interview with Iran's official IRNA news agency: "We have not forgotten Iran's kindness during the failed coup d'etat. Iran and Turkey have many opportunities to collaborate with each other, and they never lose any opportunity to work together. Iran and Turkey are also in agreement regarding the cease-fire in Syria and that this [Syrian] crisis can only be resolved through diplomacy."

The question here is what prompted Turkish officials to make such contradictory statements about their positions. Al-Monitor spoke with former Iranian Ambassador to Jordan Nosratollah Tajik. He said, "Turkey was completely on the losing side in the Syrian crisis. By supporting the anti-[Bashar al-] Assad movement, especially Daesh [Islamic State] and the terrorists, Turkey made a gamble and lost disastrously. Although confidentiality is part of foreign policy and one must not allow one's enemies and rivals to know what goes on in one's head, this theoretical assumption does not apply to Turkey. Their foreign policy has become disorganized and chaotic."

On the other hand, another issue that should be taken into consideration is the high level of economic exchanges between the two countries. Turkey is Iran's third-largest export destination, with 8.4% of Iranian exports going to its western neighbor, while Turkey is Iran's fourth-largest source of imports, with Turkey accounting for 4.6% of Iranian imports. On the other hand, and according to the European Commission, Iran is Turkey's fifth-largest trading partner.

In this vein, Saeed Laylaz, a prominent professor at Tehran's Shahid Beheshti University and an economic expert, told Al-Monitor, "Political analysis should be filtered through economic relations. Precisely for the same reason that tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia escalates, the tension between Tehran and Ankara cannot escalate beyond a certain point, because the economies of Iran and Turkey are complementary to each other."

On the other hand, some believe that since there has been an increase in tension between Turkey and the European Union, Turkey might be seeking to pursue a policy that both pleases the Arab states in the Persian Gulf region and decreases tension with Iran. This may be why when among the Arabs in Bahrain, Erdogan attacked Iran, and while in Germany, Cavusoglu criticized Iran's regional policy, while at the same time, both have spoken about the necessity of increased collaboration with Iran. In sum: Turkey may simply be trying to keep both Iranians and Arabs content.

However, there is also another theory that seeks to explain Turkey's behavior — a theory that revolves around US President Donald Trump. According to Hakki Uygur, the deputy director of the Center for Iranian Studies in Ankara, former US President Barack Obama's regional policy was such that Turkey and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf felt as if they were alone in their battle against Iran, considering that Iran and Russia were active in the Syrian war. Uygur argued that "because of Trump's constant threats against Iran, now that he is the president, Turkey and her allies feel that, unlike the past six years, Iran will no longer be at ease and that it is time for them to make up for the past losses."

Nonetheless, while Iran and Turkey have serious disagreements — especially when it comes to Syria — it is likely that tension this time around will not escalate beyond a certain level. Indeed, beyond economics, this may also be due to how the situation in Syria has considerably changed compared to only a few years ago, with fewer demands for Assad to step down.