The recent wave of high-level visits between Ankara and Teheran has been prompted by developments in Syria and particularly by the Kurdish referendum in Iraq. The two regional powers have long been working on the creation of de-escalation zones in Syria. Now, however, with the advent of the KRG referendum, perceived by both Turkey and Iran as a new blow to regional stability, they have intensified their cooperation. President Erdoğan’s visit to Teheran served to confirm their united determination to confront the KRG challenge, with the threat to take stern measures, MNA reported.
There is no doubt that cooperation between Turkey and Iran is a positive thing. Taking command of mutual problems by states of the region is an effective method and should certainly be preferred to interventions by outside powers.
But there are two important caveats. One involves the long-standing and historical rivalry between Turkey and Iran. The competition continues and it is for greater influence in the broader Middle East. The last 15 years under AKP rule, this rivalry has been tinged with overtones of sectarianism, each representing a different tradition of Islam Sunni vs. Shia. It was thus that we witnessed high-level reciprocal harsh accusations from both Ankara and Teheran during the last several years regarding their intentions and policies in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
Nevertheless, the in-built brake mechanisms of the relationship between the two neighbors keep things in check. How? Because both countries have deep respect for one another, reverence for each other’s culture and high opinion for their respective diplomacies. Thus the bonds between the two countries rest on lasting foundations. But the competitive underpinning of their regional orientations result in a relationship that is cordial and measured, but hardly ever intimate and trusting. This paradigm has worked well for centuries with sustained peace and unchallenged boundaries. (I think the remarkable functionality of this relationship is something that students of international relations should really look into!)
This unique construct of their relationship thus allows Turkey and Iran to come together on matters of mutual concern, even if mostly limited to matters of a tactical nature, leading to temporary alliances on particular issues. At the same time, their long-term strategic interests continue to diverge. Their current cooperation in Syria is a case in point and illustrates well this dichotomy. They join forces to defeat Daesh and work together on de-escalation zones, but they entertain quite different visions about the future of Syria.
Be that as it may, so long as Ankara and Teheran’s working together produce beneficial results for them and for the region, it hardly matters whether the gains are tactical or strategic. But this is where our second caveat comes in. To be laudable, the Turkish-Iranian cooperation should produce positive and constructive results, enhancing security, stability and prosperity in their region. It should be peace oriented.
Unfortunately this appears not to be the case in their joint reaction and response to the KRG referendum. Turkey and Iran have chosen the path of punishing the Iraqi Kurds, pressuring them with sanctions, threatening military action and urging Baghdad to act likewise. Clearly KRG conducted an illegitimate and unconstitutional referendum, paving the way to risks that could deeply destabilize Iraq and the region. But it is now a fact of life. It cannot be undone and it certainly cannot be undone by force. What is still possible, however, is controlling and directing the post-referendum dynamics in a direction that would preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq and at the same time meet the legitimate demands of the Iraqi Kurds. Hence, Turkey and Iran should have chosen the path of urging and facilitating negotiations, dialogue and reconciliation. They can always do this and the whole world would, with a few ill-meaning exceptions, be grateful.
A further note on President Erdoğan’s visit concerns his enthusiastic reception in Teheran. Beyond the bilateral importance of the visit, its high staging is also related to the push-and-pull of international politics. Iran naturally seeks Turkey’s friendship at a time when Washington demonizes Tehran and while Turkey’s own relations with the US are at a new low. Russia covets both Ankara and Teheran. All this help explain from the perspective of global politics the atmosphere and the results of the visit.
Undoubtedly, the Turkish President’s visit to Teheran was a major success in terms of economic and trade terms. A number of agreements to boost economic ties were signed, aiming to increase their mutual trade volume to new highs. A consistent and strong trade and economic relationship has always been the mainstay of the ties between the two countries and has been the primary factor in keeping their relationship on track. Improved economic ties therefore augur well for the future of Turkish-Iranian partnership. I hope that leaders on both sides make choices that strengthen peace, security and stability in our region and resolve regional conflicts without resort to arms and without the intervention of outside powers.
Ambassador Loğoğlu retired in 2006 after 35 years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Appointed as Turkey’s Ambassador to Denmark and later to Azerbaijan, Loğoğlu became Deputy Undersecretary for multilateral political affairs in 1998. He then served as Undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry until his posting as Ambassador of Turkey to Washington (2001-2006). He attended Brandeis University, did his doctorate at Princeton University and was a lecturer in Political Science at Middlebury College, 1969-1970. He is the author of İsmet İnönü and the Making of Modern Turkey and of numerous articles on foreign affairs. Loğoğlu served as President of the think-tank the Eurasian Strategic Studies Center. He was the Deputy Chairman of the Turkish National Commission for UNESCO (2006-2010). Elected to the parliament from Adana in June 2011, he served as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. He was the Vice-Chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in charge of foreign relations (2011-2014).