What does Erdoğan’s Iran visit tell us?

What does Erdoğan’s Iran visit tell us?

Diplomats in Ankara appear confused after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Iran on Tuesday. This visit came less than two weeks after Erdoğan blasted Iran by accusing it of trying to dominate the Middle East. 

In the meantime, the pro-government media, taking its cue from Erdoğan, carried angry commentary about “Iran’s imperial aims” in the region and how this must be stopped if all-out sectarian war - which would also drag in Turkey - is to be prevented.

Not surprisingly there were calls from Iranian parliamentarians for Erdoğan’s visit to be cancelled, and if that was not possible for President Hassan Rouhani to demand an apology from him during the visit.

Reading about what was said at the press conference in Tehran by the two presidents after their talks, one would be forgiven for thinking that Erdoğan had never said any of the things he has said about Iran. The only thing he complained about was the cost of the natural gas that it sells to Turkey, and even that was shrouded in the inoffensive language of friendship. 

Otherwise, Erdoğan referred to the need for the two countries to act together to secure regional stability and overcome terrorism. The main theme of the visit, on the other hand, was economic cooperation and energy - as usual. Looking at this picture, one can easily say that it is business as usual between Turkey and Iran. 
“Business as usual” in this case means not dwelling on differences and looking pragmatically on the gains that the two countries secure from their relationship. This being the case, one has to wonder what Erdoğan’s angry remarks aimed at Iran were all about, and also to ask what the picture that emerged from this visit says about coherence and consistency in Turkey’s foreign policy. 

These questions gain added importance after Erdoğan gave support to the Saudi-led operation against Houthi rebels in Yemen, aligning himself in this way with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi - who he hates for oppressing the Muslim Brotherhood – and countries that supported the Egyptian coup, and which also vehemently oppose the  Brotherhood.

These questions aside though, what is more than apparent at this stage is that Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s dream of making Turkey the leading Muslim country in the region has come to naught. Both men have proven time and again - since the now all but gone Arab Spring - that they are out of touch with the realities that govern this volatile part of the world. 

Both have had to also learn the hard way that their openly declared aims for the region did not enamor Turkey in the eyes of the Arab establishment, no matter what hope they may have momentarily injected into the region’s Islamists.

If the visit to Iran on Tuesday went relatively well, in the end this was essentially due to the fact that the Iranian side gave Erdoğan a cordial welcome for the sake of broader interests. Tehran’s attitude shows that Iran is also aware that much of what Erdoğan has said in terms of foreign policy has led nowhere to date, and more often than not rebounded on Turkey. 

In other words, Iran behaved patronizingly towards Turkey and was no doubt even more buoyed in this after having negotiated a nuclear deal with leading world powers. 

The Iranian media, on the other hand, generally sees Erdoğan’s visit as an “apology” in itself. The logic here appears to be that Erdoğan showed in this way that endangering Turkish-Iranian ties is something that ultimately would be well over his head.

Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are clearly trying to carve out a new niche for Turkey in the Middle East so that it may regain some of its lost influence in the region. They must understand, however, that this remains an unchanging part of the world, where the only things that change are the alliances that regional powers form for reasons that have nothing to do with any grand vision that Erdoğan or Davutoğlu may entertain for a Middle East led by Turkey.