Ties with Iran sour over Syria

Ties with Iran sour over Syria

Syria has made a mockery of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy. Just two years ago Ankara was going out of its way to court Bashar al-Assad, in apparent defiance of the West. It was also courting Iran in a similar fashion at the time.

At that time, Turkey and Brazil — as non-permanent members of the Security Council — even produced a “fuel swap” formula that was designed to reduce international pressure on Tehran due to its nuclear program. Turkey also voted against sanctions for Iran at the Security Council, a move that further annoyed its Western allies.

But times have changed and the two countries are at loggerheads because of their fundamentally different positions on Syria. As developments in that country continue to unfold Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his overambitious foreign minister are discovering that Turkey cannot have it every way.

Iran’s displeasure with Turkey really began when Ankara allowed the United States to deploy radar facilities on Turkish soil for NATO’s “defense shield” project. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu still insist these facilities are not against Iran, but this is a claim no one, least of all Tehran, is buying.

Matters between the two countries have come to a head now after Iran’s top general, Hassan Firozabadi, blamed Turkey a few days ago for the bloodshed in Syria and accused Ankara, alongside Saudi Arabia and Qatar, of helping the “war-raging goals of America.”

Ankara was further annoyed over Firozabadi’s claim that Turkey could see turmoil in Syria spread across the border as a result of Al-Qaida activity. The Foreign Ministry in Ankara was quick to respond angrily with an official statement.

Turkey “strongly condemns statements full of false accusations regarding our country and extremely inappropriate threats made by some Iranian officials, particularly the statement of Hassan Firozabadi, chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces” it said.

Appearing to suggest Tehran was ungrateful, the statement also recalled “Turkey’s principled attitude regarding the Iranian nuclear program adopted during the voting in the UN Security Council.”

Foreign Minister Davutoğlu told reporters on Wednesday that statements such as Firozabadi’s “could also harm Iran,” and added that Turkey expected Iranian officials “to think a few times before making such comments.”

Davutoğlu’s statement came a day after he held talks with his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi, who paid a surprise visit to Ankara to discuss Syria and seek Turkish help for the release of 48 Iranians abducted by members of the Free Syrian Army on Saturday.

Davutoğlu said he had explained all of this to Salehi in a “frank and friendly manner.”

A visibly irked Erdoğan also had harsh words for Iran. While pointing out that “Turkey had always stood by Iran” in the past the prime minister indicated, in so many words, that Iranians should not forget this.

The two sides will try and limit the damage done to their diplomatic ties due to the vast economic interests they share. There is also the fact that neither country needs fresh diplomatic tensions at a time given the fact that developments in the Middle East are not exactly progressing as they’d like.

The “magic” that existed in Turkish-Iranian relations a mere two years ago is nevertheless gone. Both countries today appear to be more like regional rivals than friends sharing common concerns and ideals. Fresh tensions could develop between them later on down the road.

The situation with Iran is only the latest reminder to Turkey that it is not the “prime force” determining the course of events in the region, despite what Davutoğlu’s self-declared ambitions may be.

Having started with the aim of having no problems with neighbors, Turkey has ended up with serious problems with almost every neighbor. This hardly counts as a success story as far as Davutoğlu’s grand vision of a foreign policy based on “strategic depth” is concerned.