by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 2, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1437)
Confronted by total failure in Syria and after years of strained relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Turkey is now seeking better relations with Tehran. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit last month confirms this policy shift.
Despite ongoing tensions in relations between Turkey and Iran, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu paid a surprise visit to Tehran on March 4–5. It was Davutoglu’s first visit to Iran after becoming prime minister. The visit came despite Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif cancelling his visit to Turkey in August 2015 for what was described as “lack of time.” Further, President Hassan Rouhani had also cancelled his visit to Turkey in December 2015. Davutoglu, however, wanted to create the impression that Turkey was eager to repair its relations with Tehran.
The Iranian officials’ cancelled visits were the strongest indication yet that Turkey’s relations with Iran were deteriorating. In its early days, the AKP government had boosted relations with Tehran to the level described as the warmest relations in history. This was until the war on Syria was launched. Since then bilateral relations have gradually deteriorated and reached their lowest point when Ankara announced, together with the Saudis, its intention to launch a ground offensive against Syria.
However, during the visit Davutoglu seemed anxious to reverse the situation and did his best to play down the “differences of opinions” between the two countries. The apparent aim of the visit was to boost economic relations and Davutoglu kept giving economic messages prior to his departure from Ankara. For instance, just before leaving for Tehran, he said, “Our economies are complementing each other. We are pleased that the sanctions are lifted.” He also stated that “Iran is an undiscovered treasure.” Despite Davutoglu’s economic priorities, he had a political message also in mind when he announced, “We will discuss regional issues, primarily Iraq and Syria.”
Despite the economic benefits Turkey seeks from Iran, it is undeniable that Turkey’s Syria policy has backfired and Ankara desperately needs a strong regional ally to face the repercussions of its misdeeds. As it stands, the US and Russia have taken the lead in Syrian negotiations and Turkey along with other regional players — Saudi Arabia, Qatar et al. — have been sidelined. This situation alone might not have been of deep concern for the Turks as they were getting weary of the conflict dragging on but considering the possibility of the partition of Syria, Turkey is extremely worried that it may lose all control over developments.
US Secretary of State John Kerry’s threatened Plan B — partition of Syria if the peace talks fail — has rattled Ankara. It would lead to the Kurds having an independent state in Northern Syria (The Kurds unilaterally announced the establishment of an autonomous region in the north of Syria on March 17). The Turkish government will try to prevent such a scenario at all costs. Ankara is aware that Iran is also vehemently opposed to the partition of Syria but Tehran is not as desperate as Ankara. Further, unlike the US, which does not respect Turkey’s interests, the Russians have been careful not to upset their trusted ally Iran. Nevertheless, Ankara knows that its best option is to act in unison with Iran to prevent the possible partition of Syria.
Davutoglu noted in Tehran that some people are trying to change the map of the region and Turkey and Iran are working together to prevent it. “The most important issue that we have agreed in our talks with Iran is the unity of Syria. They [Iranians] also want a strong Syria against Israel.” Interestingly by acknowledging that Iran wants a strong and united Syria against Israel, Davutoglu conceded Iran’s argument that the war on Syria is political in nature and the aim of the plot against its government is to strengthen Israel’s position vis-à-vis Iran and Hizbullah. This is also how Iran has explained its support for the Syrian government. Its enemies, however, accuse Tehran of pursuing a “sectarian agenda.” Hence, it is meaningful that such acknowledgment has come from Turkey that in the past has persistently accused Iran of being a sectarian state.
In fact, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tasteless accusations against Iran have been the biggest problem between the two countries. Erdogan launched one of his harshest diatribes against Iran’s so-called “sectarian policy” soon after Turkey’s invasion of the Bashika camp in Iraq in December 2015. Iran reacted to the invasion by saying “it is wrong to do this without the permission of the Baghdad government.” A few days after this statement, in an interview with al-Jazeera Arabic, Erdogan accused Iran of pursuing a “sectarian agenda” in Syria and Iraq, “We are now a country that is completely against sectarianism. It is obvious who is doing sectarianism here. It is Iran. Who else [is sectarian]? Iraq. Unfortunately, we are currently witnessing that Iraq together with Iran are cooperating on a sectarian impulse. This cooperation continues in Syria as well. What lies behind Syria’s problems? Of course sectarianism.”
Davutoglu’s remarks, therefore, repudiated Erdogan’s false accusations against Iran. It is unfortunate that it took six years to comprehend Iran’s sincere motivation in supporting the Syrian government in the NATO-imposed war: to foil a major western plot to enhance Israel’s power.
Another political reason for Turkey’s turn to Iran is that, after a brief flirtation with the Saudis, Ankara has seen the Najdi Bedouins’ true nature. In the past few months, based on their combined plot to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, Turkey established warm bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia. The relations peaked when Erdogan visited Riyadh in December 2015 and declared Saudi Arabia as Turkey’s “strategic partner.” As part of this strategic partnership, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that the two countries are planning an invasion of Syria. But in the face of strong opposition from Russia, the Saudis abandoned the plan. After meeting his Russian counterpart, Saudi Foreign Minister ‘Adel al-Jubeir said that if Saudi Arabia were to launch a ground operation in Syria, it would only be to fight against ISIS (not against the Kurds). Further, the Saudis also supported Kerry’s plan B for the partition of Syria.
Noting the erratic position of the Saudis, Ankara realized that they will never exit the camp of those who butter their bread. This is what Davutoglu implied in his al-Jazeera interview before his visit to Iran, “If we launch a military intervention in Syria, who is going to guarantee that Arab states will support us?” Based on recent developments, Turkey seems to have concluded that the only regional country it can rely on is Iran and Ankara would be better off if it remained on the positive side of Tehran.
Aside from political reasons there are also attractive economic opportunities that draw Turkey toward a more fruitful relationship with Iran. Due to ongoing tension with Russia, Turkish exports to Russia have plummeted. Russia was a very important market for Turkish goods and services and the volume of bilateral trade was around $30 billion. Before the crisis, Russia was the second largest market for Turkish contractors who secured major contracts to build motorways, government buildings, and infrastructure in Russia. However, after Turkey’s provocative downing of a Russian aircraft over Syria last November, Moscow introduced sanctions against Ankara, putting Turkish traders in a very difficult position.
The lifting of sanctions against Iran has come as a great opportunity for Turkish businessmen. They want to make up for losses in the Russian market by re-entering the Iranian market. Turkish-Iranian trade has been declining since 2012; in 2012 the volume of bilateral trade was $22 billion. By 2015, it had dropped to $10 billion due to the illegal sanctions against Iran. Since the lifting of sanctions many Turkish companies have visited Iran for re-establishing businesses. However, this needed the political support of the Turkish government that is after deeper bilateral trade ties to gain maximum benefit from the Iranian market. Turkey’s main aim is not merely to increase the volume of trade but to undertake joint projects that would merge the two countries’ economies through integrating Turkish and Iranian ports, roads, railways, and stock markets.
Davutoglu’s visit thus attempted to change the situation in favour of mutual economic gains and it is expected that such relations will increase economic cooperation between the two countries. The fact that there were 160 businessmen that accompanied Davutoglu shows Iran’s significance for Turkish business. Davutoglu wants initially to increase the volume of trade to $30 billion and then to $50 billion.
In order to not upset the Iranians and achieve his goals, during his visit Davutoglu refrained from mentioning matters of dispute. Rather, he focused on common interests of the two countries such as the importance of deciding the future of the region by regional countries themselves. They emphasized “the necessity for a new and strong phase” in relations. Davutoglu mentioned Turkey’s support for Iran during his speech to Turkish and Iranian businessmen, “While the entire world implemented sanctions against Iran, Turkey opposed them at every opportunity. We have seen that our Iranian colleagues have not forgotten this.” He also noted “we have discussed our differences of opinion in a friendly and genuine manner.”
He further noted that according to his classification Turkey and Iran have agreed on five points: (1) regional countries should solve regional problems; (2) outsiders should not dictate their agenda on regional problems; (3) Syria’s unity should be preserved; (4) ceasefire should be supported; and (5) the political solution should include wide sections of the Syrian society, and there needs to be cooperation against both ISIS and the PKK.
Based on Davutoglu’s remarks that were also supported by Iran, Turkey seems to have achieved its goals during the visit. It is expected that relations will gain further momentum with President Rohani’s expected visit to Turkey for the OIC summit later this month. It will likely strengthen political and economic relations between them but not automatically. It is quite possible that Turkey might resort to another ploy to reassert its own agenda in the region. There are signs that Turkey might do just that. Almost one week after Davutoglu’s visit to Iran, representatives of Syrian rebel groups met in Turkey with the aim of gathering some 106 different groups under an umbrella organization to fight more effectively against the Syrian government. Further, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah in his al-Mayadeen interview stated that Turkey continues to disrupt a political solution in Syria, “What is disrupting any progress toward a political solution is firstly Saudi Arabia, and secondly Turkey.”
If Turkey does not reassure Iran that it has abandoned its destructive policies in the region, it is likely that Davutoglu’s visit would be time wasted for both Ankara and Tehran.