Entering Saudi orbit while ignoring Iran

Entering Saudi orbit while ignoring Iran

Ever since economic sanctions against Iran were officially lifted in mid-January, you could see this mood of overriding joy among the business community.

It is not difficult to understand their joy. While Western markets have remained more or less stable, the Turkish business community has been hit by the turmoil in the region. Turkish business has suffered from the political tension of strained bilateral relations with countries like Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Russia.
From the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TİM) to the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies (TÜRSAB), you hear statements voicing excitement about new business opportunities to come in the post-embargo period. There are high (and some definitely exaggerated) expectations on how Turkish exports will increase and how Iranian tourists will flood into Turkey to compensate for lost Russian tourists. 

This stands in high contrast with the silence coming from Turkish officials. One statement I came across was from Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who said right after the announcement of the decision that Turkey was happy to see the sanctions lifted and his expectation was this would boost economic ties between the two countries. 

As someone who worked to find a breakthrough in the nuclear talks back in 2010 as Turkey’s then-foreign minister, one would have expected a more excited attitude from Davutoğlu. At any rate, nothing more was heard from the government. This is rather unusual, since one would expect the government to play a leading role in boosting trade ties with Tehran.

While European governments have been sending high-level political delegations to Tehran since last July, when the nuclear deal was reached, not only have Turkey’s rulers been avoiding going to Iran, but they would rather get even closer to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch rival.

The latest high-level visit to Iran was conducted by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on April 7, 2015. As of today, no visit to Tehran seems to loom on the horizon.

By contrast, in the course of the past two years, Erdoğan visited Saudi Arabia three times; the first one to attend the funeral of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in January 2015 and then again a month later when he visited the new king. 

The president’s third and most recent visit took place on Dec. 29, 2015. Only a month later, Davutoğlu visited Riyadh on Jan. 30. Two visits in the course of one month, one on the presidential level and another on the prime ministerial level. This is certainly telling. 

Let’s also add that while Turkey has seen no problem in taking part in the Saudi-led “Islamic coalition against terror,” which is basically seen as a Sunni alliance, it has also sided with Riyadh in the latest contention with Tehran over the Saudi Kingdom executing a Shia clergyman.

So, the picture is clear: In the regional proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia, where the fiercest battleground is Syria, Turkey sees no problem entering into the orbit of the Saudis.

Yet it is very difficult to see how siding with the Saudis overrides Turkey’s national interests in seizing the moment as far as Iran is concerned. 

Turkey has always been against the sanctions policy against Iran, favoring engagement with Tehran. It has always argued that engagement will strengthen the hands of the power centers in Iran, which are more prone in having better ties with the Western world. And better ties with the West would mean better chances of finding solutions to the problems in the region.

Turkey’s immediate foreign policy priority is to see an end to the war in Syria. And the key is in the hands of the Iranians, not the Saudis. 

Turkey is not only missing the opportunity to intensify its trade ties with Iran, but also to contribute to a political process that might, at least, end the downward spiral of violence in the region.