Turkey’s Foreign Minister Davutoglu with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani | Credit: Iran Review - Photo: 2013

Turkey Tip Toes To Improve Ties with Iran

By Siamak Kakaei* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

TEHRAN (IDN | Iran Review) – Turkey is currently grappling in its domestic politics with widespread popular protests in a number of Turkish cities. Also, on a regional level, Ankara is dealing with the aftermath of another crisis in its southern neighbour, Syria, and is also looking for ways to give a proper response to the demands of its own Kurdish population. The question is: Will these domestic and regional developments have any important effect on the foreign policy of (Turkey’s Prime Minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan? Will Ankara’s foreign policy, which has been known in recent years as the new regional and Middle Eastern policy of Turkey, undergo changes as a result of the aforesaid developments?

During recent weeks, Turkey has been taking certain measures which may be related to Ankara’s foreign policy approaches. It is noteworthy that the Turkish government is currently in a morbid fear of the consequences of the on-going regional developments, including the developments in Egypt following the military coup, and the intensification of crisis and popular protests in Turkey, which have led to the escalation of tensions in the country. In addition and from the viewpoint of political principles, the current trend of political developments in Egypt can pose a serious challenge to Turkey’s foreign policy approach to political developments and popular revolutions in the Middle East region.

Many analysts believe that recent changes that have taken place in Turkey with respect to the country’s armed forces as well as changes made to Article 35 of the law of the armed forces have their roots in the on-going developments in Egypt. Of course, policies adopted by the Justice and Development Party during past years have mostly aimed to marginalize the Turkish military and push it out of politics. At present, however, the concurrence of the Egyptian developments with the change in Turkey’s military law has raised a few questions: Is Erdogan’s administration trying to prevent a repetition of what has happened in Egypt in his own country? Hasn’t the Turkish government been trying to dispel concerns about the country’s armed forces by making the aforesaid change to the military law?

Concerns over Syrian Kurds

Simultaneous with the aforesaid developments in Egypt, the on-going crisis in Syria has caused Turkish foreign policy – which has put the main emphasis on the need to topple the Syrian government during the past two years – to enter a new phase. Turkey’s government is most concerned about what is going on in Kurdish regions of Syria and its fears increased especially after Salih Muslim, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, which has close ties to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), proclaimed autonomy in those regions. Latest statements by high-ranking Turkish officials such as Erdogan and (Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet) Davutoglu, about the issue of Syrian Kurds being a red line for Ankara, clearly revealed that there is some kind of strain in Turkey’s national security about this issue.

Given the current course of regional developments and developments along Turkey’s southern border, the question is whether the Turkish foreign policy is undergoing change or not?

It is noteworthy that the Erdogan administration has no plan to make a radical and tangible change in its foreign policy toward Syria because the reverberations of such a change in domestic politics of Turkey will be worrisome for the Justice and Development Party. That is, if Erdogan makes a tangible change in his government’s policy on Syria, he is sure to come under blistering fire from opposition parties. The criticism will not be for the change in policy, but the opposition figures will take it as a ground to accuse the government that it has gone astray with regard to Syria during the past two years and has caused additional costs and a host of security problems for Turkey. Therefore, in the face of numerous protests which have emerged in Turkish society, any form of shift in the country’s foreign policy on Syria will elicit harsh criticism from the opposition. On the other hand, Turkey is trying to remain in tune with the United States policy in the region. Therefore, as a result of the above reasons, the possibility for any remarkable change in Turkey’s foreign policy toward Syria is quite faint.

However, a U-turn and improvement in relations with other neighbouring countries, including Iraq and Iran, is quite possible. In the meantime, the Iraqi government’s sharp criticism of Turkey is mostly due to the kind of political relationship that Ankara has established with the Iraqi Kurds. In addition, (the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri) Al-Maliki has been accusing Turkey of attempting to disrupt the political process in Iraq. Perhaps, the current conditions have provided a good opportunity to raise hope about reduction of tensions between Turkey and Iraq.

After Rouhani’s election

With regard to Turkey’s policy on Iran, the current period should be considered a period of waiting and anticipation for Ankara. By monitoring the policies of the new Iranian administration, Turkey’s government is trying to see whether a tangible change will take place in Iran’s foreign policy or not? When it comes to regional strategies, there are friction points between Iran and Turkey which have one way or another, left their mark on the two countries’ foreign policy approaches. During a recent trip by (Turkey’s Foreign Minister) Davutoglu to Iran to take part in the inauguration of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as well as during a meeting between the two officials, it was quite clear that Davutoglu was trying to ascertain whether Iran will change its policy toward Syria or not?

In reality, Ankara is willing for Iran to reduce, at least, part of the tension which currently exists between the two countries. Perhaps, due to the coldness and strain that has characterized Turkey’s relations with its neighbours during the past year the Turkish officials are now trying to rekindle friendly ties with the Islamic Republic. This, however, requires both countries to swerve off the collision course in their foreign policies.

In a more profound analysis of relations between Iran and Turkey, it should be emphasized that there are certain issues and considerations which can be taken advantage of in order to reduce tension in bilateral relations between Tehran and Ankara. The exigencies of neighbourhood between the two countries and the background of their relations in past years, which has been based on promotion of bilateral ties, can be taken as a good guide for the achievement of the above goal. In addition to geopolitical positions, the nature of Turkey’s relations with Europe and the role that Iran is playing in the Persian Gulf and Middle East regions has been pushing the two countries toward higher levels of interaction.

Meanwhile, one of the main goals that Turkey has been seeking through its foreign policy approaches has been to achieve the highest possible degree of economic prosperity. Turkey is currently ranking 17th in the world in economic terms and is planning to improve that ranking to the 10th according to its strategic vision plan for 2020. Therefore, any kind of tension and confrontation in foreign policy and conflict with the neighbouring countries will only serve to reduce Turkey’s regional clout while discouraging foreign direct investment in the country. Such state of affairs will deal heavy blows to Turkey’s economy which will certainly leave its mark on the country’s foreign policy as well.

Apart from the fact that under the current circumstances, Turkey has opted for the policy of waiting and anticipation toward Iran, there are certain foreign policy priorities both for Iran and Turkey, which are relatively more stable and less prone to change and which will not be affected by a change in government in either of the two countries.

Although Iran and Turkey are pursuing different, and at times conflicting, interests in the Middle East, they have also common interests in this region. It appears that viewpoints in both countries are being redirected toward more cordiality in bilateral relations which have been under the influence of regional issues during the past year.

*Siamak Kakaei is an Iranian expert on Turkey. This article is being reproduced by arrangement with Iran Review which carried it on August 20, 2013 with the headline Turkey’s Cautious Steps to Improve Ties with Iran. The original article, translated from Farsi into English by Iran Review appeared on Iranian Diplomacy (IRD). [IDN-InDepthNews – August 23, 2013]

Photo: Turkey’s Foreign Minister Davutoglu with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani | Credit: Iran Review

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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