Strains in Turkish-Iranian ties

Strains in Turkish-Iranian ties

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Tehran this week, after attending the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, did not have the positive aura of previous visits, although overtly the sides presented an image of continued amity and cooperation. The warmth the two countries enjoyed in 2010, when Turkey interceded together with Brazil on behalf of Iran, to work out a deal between Tehran and the West, was not there this time. The reason is that in the intervening period the two countries have diverged on issues of strategic importance. 

The most obvious problem is of course Syria. Turkey and Iran are on opposite sides of the fence on this. But one cannot argue that Ankara’s position is driven by the West, as some in Iran are claiming. It is clear that Ankara’s anti-Bashar al-Assad stance is homegrown. 

Many also insist that sectarianism is a component in Ankara’s position, given that it is Sunnis who are predominantly being targeted in Syria, at a time when Iran is playing for the leadership of resurgent Shiites in the Middle East. Many experts say there is competition between Turkey and Iran along sectarian lines in the region. Whatever the truth of the matter may be, the fact is that no agreement on Syria emerged from Erdoğan’s talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad on Thursday. 

The nuclear issue is another sensitive topic the two sides tried to handle with delicacy. Erdoğan repeated Ankara’s traditional stance that “Turkey supports every country’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, but wants no proliferation of nuclear weapons in its region.” Iran’s president, who claims his country is not after such weapons, nevertheless listened to Erdoğan politely without much comment. This is not surprising, since Iran is flexing its “nuclear muscles” in ways which openly imply it is interested in more than just nuclear energy. 

At the time this piece was written Erdoğan had left Tehran, but it was still not clear whether it had been decided whether the nuclear talks between Iran and the “P5+1” group (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) would be held in Turkey. Ankara has turned this meeting into something of a matter of prestige and is pushing hard for the talks to be held in Istanbul, no doubt to show that it has not been totally marginalized in the international efforts on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

In a piece for Asia Times (March 27), just prior to Erdoğan’s Teheran visit, Iranian international relations expert Kaveh L. Afrasiabi had this to say: “Compared to two years ago, when Iran trusted Turkey enough to consider inking an agreement with it, together with Brazil, that called for Turkey’s safekeeping of Iran’s enriched uranium, today a good deal of that trust has disappeared, replaced with a growing disquiet about Turkey’s perceived ill intentions toward Syria and, indirectly, Iran.” 

Tehran’s trust in Turkey was seriously diminished after Ankara’s decision to host the radar systems for NATO’s U.S.-lead missile defense shield project. Ankara says, unconvincingly, that this is not aimed at Iran, but the whole world is aware that it is. More significantly, however, Iran perceives this to be a move against itself, and has even issued military threats in this context.

The bottom line is that there are tangible strains in Turkish-Iranian ties at the moment. But no one should expect this to lead to a severance in relations. This is not simply because of the two countries’ mutual economic interests, valued at billions of dollars. Both countries may have divergences but are still not prepared to close the lines of political communication at a time of turmoil in the region. It is nevertheless hard to say, looking at developments, that there is much love between Ankara and Tehran at the moment.

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