Turkey-Iran rapprochement and possible consequences
Iran’s chief of general staff, Major General Mohammad Hossein Bageri, became the first Iranian top soldier since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 to visit Turkey on Aug. 15. Bageri held talks with his Turkish counterpart General Hulusi Akar, but not only with Akar. Accompanied by intelligence officers, Bageri was also received by President Tayyip Erdoğan and met with other top government figures including Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli.
The visit comes at a very interesting time, with the Turkish government experiencing a number of problems with its Western allies.
While Bageri was still in Ankara, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Aug. 16 that she would not pursue the planned upgrade of the Customs Union deal between Turkey and the European Union due to the current political situation. She was referring to the widespread arrests, especially of journalists, politicians and intellectuals, as well as other problems regarding rights and freedoms under the state of emergency declared after the foiled July 2016 military coup.
British Minister of State Alan Duncan, who was the first Western politician to visit Ankara the day after the coup attempt to show his government’s solidarity, met top government officials in Ankara on Aug. 17 to give the message that it was time for the Turkish government to give a positive signal to the West. He said that not extending the state of emergency any longer could help that.
Meanwhile, concluding his contacts in Ankara, Iranian Chief of Staff Bageri said Ankara and Tehran had agreed on sharing intelligence and “cooperating operationally” in the fight against terrorism.
So while it is complaining about the lack of sufficient cooperation against terrorism from its number one NATO partner the U.S., the Turkish government seems to have found a partner in Iran. This comes at a time when the U.S. has announced new sanctions against Tehran amid Iranian threats that it could end the nuclear deal struck in 2015.
Turkey is upset that the U.S.’s choice of ground force against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria is the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militia of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
In the Syrian theater, Iran and Turkey are on opposite sides, as Tehran strongly backs the Bashar al-Assad regime. But they have been working closely together with Russia in the Astana process to maintain a ceasefire, and Ankara and Tehran also have an enemy in common: The PKK. The outlawed Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) is the Iranian branch of the PKK and it is active along the Iraqi and Turkish borders. The fact that the PKK has cooperated with the U.S. in Syria (and in Iraq) has further antagonized Tehran’s view of the PJAK/PKK.
The expression of “operational cooperation” could mean Turkey and Iran cooperating in military or intelligence operations against the PKK’s presence in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, at a time when Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leader Masoud Barzani has declared a referendum on Sept. 24 on independence from Iraq.
It is not only Turkey and Iran that oppose the idea of the KRG referendum; also Germany, the U.S., the U.K. and other Western governments have voice their opposition. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu warned on Aug. 16 that the vote could drag Iraq into a civil war, and Barzani reportedly hinted on Aug. 17 that he could “postpone” the referendum if certain conditions are met, such as the completion of payment of oil revenue by Baghdad and the granting of promised government positions for the Kurds.
Another joint Ankara-Tehran initiative could also emerge in Syria, if both Turkey and Iran press more to prevent the PYD/PKK from having a role in the city administration of Raqqa once it is taken from ISIL.
Will this rapprochement between Ankara and Tehran have a negative effect on Turkey’s already rocky relations with the West?
It may be too early to comment right now. Perhaps it will be easier once we see the outcome of U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis’ upcoming visit to Ankara.