April 27, 2017

Turkey – Iran: any new developments in the regional context?

By Corneliu Pivariu.

The relations between Turkey and Iran witnessed a tempestuous evolution during the history as a result of their many times diverging interests in the Near and the Middle East and even in Asia. However, during the last century and in spite of the competition between the two countries, peace remained a major coordinate of their relationship as the commercial and energy relations developed with some intermissions and the two cooperated regionally whenever their interests converged.

The so-called Arab spring, Turkey’s participation to the missile shield and the civil war in Syria were dissenting elements between the two countries that seemed to soften after the aborted coup in Turkey and the reinforcement of Erdogan’s political system. However, it should be noted that both Ankara and Tehran backed local partners and the groups close to each of them during the last fights in Mossul, Aleppo and Raqa and tried to position themselves as well as possible in the event of an evolution towards a long expected peace particularly by the civil population in Syria and Iraq.

The possibility that an Iranian drone (UAV) caused the death of four Turkish military on November 24th in the area of al-Bab town in Syria represented an element of dangerous escalation. We noticed the visit of the Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (although he formally denied that the subject of the drone was discussed in Tehran) together with Hakan Fidan – the head of MIT to the Iranian capital on November 26th as well as the phone talks of president Erdogan with president Putin on the subject. Russia said that the troops loyalist to Bashar al Assad do not have such drones and that the only plausible alternatives are the Iranian Al Quds forces, the Lebanese Hezbollah or other Shia militias.

Aleppo’s control by the coallition backing Bashar al-Assad (and Russia played a major role in that) to which Tehran’s participation with important forces should be added represent another element of discontent for for president Erdogan. Nevertheless, the reality showing that Turkey imports around 10 billion cu.m. of gas from Iran (the second partner after Russia) and that the economic relations between the two countries were continuously developing from 1 billion dollar in 2000 to 4.2 billion dollar in 2005 and to 21.9 billion dollar in 2012 cannot be ignored.

Despite their long time relations, there is a mutual distrust between Turkey and Iran including in the field of economic relations, but the distrust is more visible as far as the regional situation is concerned. Iran does not agree on Turkey’s support for the anti-Assad opposition and on the support it grants to the Sunni jihadist groups as all that jeopardizes its strategic interests in Syria, its bonds to the Lebanese Hebollah and condemns Ankara for allowing the flow of jihadists into Syria and for granting them logistic and financial support. Turkey is worried of the support Iran is granting to some Kurdish formations, PKK included, of creating an autonomous zone at the frontier with Syria and of the actions of some Iraqi Shia militias backed by Tehran in the Mosul region, erstwhile an Ottoman province.

The Middle East’s conflicts are not leading us towards a positive evolution, quite on the contrary, as future appears less predictible in an area where estimations were anyway difficult to foresee. None of the players acting at the moment is spared of possible future failures. Contacts at different political levels from minister to the highest level between Ankara and Tehran were much more intense during the last six months and that makes us believe a strategic understanding between the two countries is possible. The role the USA and Russia might play in this context should not be neglected since a conflict between Ankara and Tehran is neither in the USA’s or Russia’s interest.

We noticed the recent understanding among Russia, Turkey and Iran (initialled in Moscow on December 21st, 2016) for convening an international conference in Astana, Kazakhstan, during January (probably in the second part of the month) on Syria at the foreign ministers’ level. The USA didn’t attend Moscow’s negotiations SUA and probably will not participate at Astana’s conference according to the State Department spokesman: we were not excluded but we are not part of it either.

That reflects in fact Obama Administration’s policy of not investing important political and military capital in Syria while president Putin made a strategic investment after which so far at least he got the expected results. Ankara wants that the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, the Syrian opposition (but without the Kurdish formation) participate at Astana while the High Committe for Negotiations (grouping the Syrian opposition’s political and military organisations) declares it doesn’t know yet anything about this initiative. Besides, we cannot speak of an united Syrian opposition with an unitary voice. We do not think, in this context, that this last Moscow’s initiative together with Ankara and Tehran has any chance (as it happened) and an eventual participation of Saudi Arabia and of other Gulf states is unlikely.

Turkey and Iran will continue positioning themselves as better as possible in the Middle East’s geopolitical equation.

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Photographer: Ionus Paraschiv.

 

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