This article was published in Arab News on October 9, 2017.
Turkey and Iran dance the diplomatic two-step
The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s one-day visit to Tehran last week had been due for several months, but the independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq accelerated the process.
The nature of Turkish-Iranian relations was best described by Shahram Akbarzadeh and Alfred Deakin of the Institute for Citizenship and Globalization in Australia; they said the two countries were “not quite enemies, but less than friends.”
Relations have fluctuated through the centuries. More recently, Turkey and Iran were in different boats in almost all Middle Eastern crises. They were on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict from day one. Turkey did everything to force the Syrian President Bashar Assad to step aside, and Iran did everything to keep him in power. While they are cooperating for the moment in the Astana peace talks, their attitudes in the overall solution to the Syrian crisis continue to be far apart.
As recently as February this year, Turkey was blaming Iran for propagating Persian nationalism in the region. Iran retorted that Turkey was promoting neo-Ottomanism.
Now the two countries are cooperating on the Iraqi Kurdish referendum issue, because both are worried that the referendum may raise the expectation of independence among the strong Kurdish communities in their own countries. Despite this common worry, the absence of mutual trust in general among the major players in the Middle East also affects Turkey and Iran. There is a widespread feeling that everyone has a hidden agenda regarding the Iraqi Kurds.
Iran suspects that, because of the importance of oil for the Iraqi Kurdistan economy, the KRG may find a way to come to an agreement with Turkey in exchange for the latter’s consent to export its oil through the existing pipeline from Kirkuk to the Turkish Mediterranean terminal of Iskenderun. This skepticism is justified, because Turkey has big economic stakes in such an agreement. It would bring sizeable income to Turkey without any additional investment.
Another area where Turkey and the KRG may cooperate is Kirkuk. The incorporation of this province into the scope of the referendum made the entire exercise more debatable. Due to the importance of Kirkuk to Turkey because of the strong Turkmen community in the province, Ankara may persuade the KRG President Masoud Barzani to backtrack on this particular chapter of the referendum issue.
Amid mistrust and fraught relations that have fluctuated for centuries, the two countries are cooperating on the Kurdish independence issue because they share a common fear.
Kirkuk is also important to Baghdad because of the oil reserves. This commonality of interests brings Baghdad and Turkey closer to each other and it may raise concerns in Tehran at being left out of a possible Turkey-Iraq-KRG deal.
Turkey, in turn, suspects Iran because of its strong influence on the central authorities in Baghdad. Furthermore. Iran maintains good relations with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which was initially opposed to the referendum. Iran may use this leverage to negotiate with Barzani a deal that will not cater for Turkey’s interests.
President Erdogan’s visit to Tehran took place against this complex background, but a more imminent threat of Iraqi disintegration pushed the other worries aside and helped the two countries to cooperate more closely. The joint statement issued after the visit said the two countries “rejected the illegal and illegitimate referendum held by the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.”
Although the main purpose of the visit was the Kurdish referendum, the two countries used this opportunity to hold the regular meeting of the Turkish-Iranian Supreme Council for Cooperation, with the participation of ministers in charge of economic, commercial and cultural affairs.
They agreed on several issues, reaffirmation of the goal to increase bilateral trade from $10 billion to $30bn; full implementation of Iranian nuclear deal; a political solution to the Syrian conflict retaining Syria’s national sovereignty; and a call to the international community to increase its support for the Palestinian cause.
The two countries also agreed to use local currency in their bilateral trade.
This visit helped to bring Turkish-Iranian relations one notch higher in the volatile environment of the Middle East. If these two countries manage to cooperate on the Kurdish referendum issue until the question is entirely solved, it will consolidate the present more or less satisfactory relations; if not, it will become another pitfall like the ones they have faced several times in their centuries-old relations.