Turkey's president once brought his country closer to Iran. Now, despite hand-holding and smiles, he finds himself facing off against the Islamic Republic in a regional war.
- By Ceren KenarCeren Kenar is an Istanbul-based journalist working for the Turkish daily Türkiye.
TEHRAN — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would probably never have imagined that the headline of an Iranian newspaper during his first visit to the Iranian capital after a framework deal over Iran’s nuclear program was reached would read: “The Ottoman Don Quixote in Tehran.” But that was precisely the greeting Erdogan received during a state visit to Iran this week.
Turkey, after all, was one of the first powers to attempt to broker an agreement between Iran and world powers over Tehran’s nuclear program. After decades of strained relations, Erdogan’s government pursued a rapprochement with Iran beginning in 2010: Ankara, along with Brazil, brokered a deal then that would have seen Iran send its uranium stockpiles to Turkey in exchange for reactor fuel, thereby limiting Tehran’s stocks of enriched uranium, which Western countries feared could be used to make a nuclear bomb. The deal was rebuffed by the United States and eventually collapsed — a few weeks later, Turkey, as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council at the time, voted against Washington on a resolution that imposed further sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
At the time, Turkey was accused by Western countries, along with Israel and Saudi Arabia, of drifting away from its traditional allies in favor of the Islamist East. Nowadays, the critique of the ruling AKP government is that it has joined the “Sunni axis” against Iran, aligning itself with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries against Iran-backed parties in Yemen and Syria. While such fears may give too much prominence to the role of ideology in Turkish foreign policymaking, the strains between Turkey and Iran over the conflicts currently wracking the Middle East are very real, and account for the tepid reception that Erdogan received this week in Tehran.
At a warm official welcoming ceremony, where Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani held hands, both sides attempted to smooth over any differences between the two countries. “The region is burning in a fire,” Erdogan said at a joint news conference broadcast live on state television. “I don’t look at the sect. It does not concern me whether [Shiite] or Sunni, what concerns me are Muslims. We have to get united and block the killing and bloodshed.”
Rouhani noted that the two leaders had talked about Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and had a “comprehensive discussion” regarding Yemen. “We had common points,” he said. “We have to witness the end of war and bloodshed in Yemen as soon as possible.”
In reality, however, Iran and Turkey are bitterly at odds over some of the region’s most explosive conflicts. On his way back from Tehran, Erdogan addressed the sectarian policies of Iran as a source of problems in the region: Highlighting the atrocities committed in Iraq and Syria, he stated that “my biggest fear is sectarian bigotry.”
Both parties, meanwhile, seem to be tired of agreeing to disagree on these issues. A week before his visit to Tehran, Erdogan did not mince his words while endorsing the Saudi campaign in Yemen: He called Iran’s efforts to dominate the Middle East “intolerable,” and demanded that Tehran “withdraw any forces, whatever it has in Yemen, as well as in Syria and Iraq and respect their territorial integrity.”
The response from Iran came quickly. More than 60 Iranian lawmakers called for Erdogan’s visit to be cancelled, while Mohammad Hasan Asfari, a member of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign-policy committee, asked the Foreign Ministry to expel Turkey’s ambassador. Mansour Haghighatpour, the deputy chairman of the same parliamentary committee, said that “Recep Pasha” — giving the Turkish president a backhanded Ottoman honorific to highlight his supposed imperial ambitions — should not be allowed to visit Iran after his comments, and accusing the Turkish president of “participat[ing] in 130,000 innocent people’s massacre in Syria.”
One of Erdogan’s advisors confirmed that this war of words caused the Turkish side to consider canceling the visit altogether. “It was an option the president considered,” the advisor said during the flight to Tehran. “However, it was the Iranian side that insisted for this visit to happen. They urged us not to cancel the trip.”
It was not only the Iranians who wanted the visit to happen. Iran is a lucrative trade partner for Turkey: Bilateral trade between the countries reached $14.6 billion in 2013, while Turkey is also Iran’s biggest natural gas customer, purchasing almost 90 percent of its natural gas exports each year. Ankara is eager to boost those trade relations even further, and believes an international accord that eases sanctions on Tehran will provide promising opportunities for Turkish investors. Eight new deals were signed by ministers of the two countries during Erdogan’s visit, covering everything from energy cooperation to health investments and cultural cooperation.
But even though business is booming, the two countries’ stark foreign-policy differences keep encroaching on the relationship.
“We don’t expect to come to terms with Iran on regional issues,” said a senior official from the Foreign Ministry of Turkey on the way to Tehran. “We will express our obvious concerns, which they have heard many times.”
So far, however, there are no signs that a broad regional understanding is in the works. The spokesman for the Turkish presidency, Ibrahim Kalin, wrote before the Tehran visit that Iran should re-evaluate its relationship with Arab and Muslim countries, “and work to change the perception of its policies as sectarian, divisive and expansionist.”
Asked whether there is a possibility for both parties to reach a concrete and viable roadmap on regional conflicts, Kalin responded, “It is a matter of constant negotiation.”
These tensions over regional issues, however, haven’t dampened Turkey’s enthusiasm for a resolution of the nuclear issue. Unlike the Gulf countries, Ankara is enthusiastic about the framework deal reached in Lausanne, Switzerland — a nuclear weapons-free Iran that is not burdened by international sanctions is a win-win for Turkey. However, Turkey remains concerned about the potential side effects of a deal, particularly the possibility that it will result in the international community turning a blind eye to Tehran’s expansionism and sectarian aggression in the Middle East.
With Turkey and Iran finding themselves on the opposite sides of wars in Syria and Yemen, the relationship between the two regional powers promises to be a complicated one. Some in official Turkish circles, however, are holding out hope that the nuclear deal can pave the way for a broader understanding with their rivals and business partners to the east.
“This may be a wishful thinking, yet there might be some long-term sociological and political effects of the nuclear deal in Iran,” said a senior official from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry of Turkey, who emphasized that he was speaking in his personal capacity. “Iran’s integration into the global economy and the emergence of a dynamic middle class can curb some excesses in Iran’s foreign policy.”
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