Turkish-Iranian Relations: Rivalry Without Hostility

Ömer Taşpınar

Scholars of real politik often say that countries don’t have friends, only shared interests. Given Turkey’s recent attempts at rapprochement with Iran, particularly in Syria, where the two countries are part of the Astana process led by Moscow, we might ask what drives Turkish-Iranian shared interest. The short answer is the Kurds. It is one of the immutable laws of the Middle East that whenever the Kurds show signs of unity in pursuit of independence, Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad put their differences behind and finds way of thwarting such “dangerous” prospects. And it is this that will mediate relations between Ankara and Tehran, despite pressures for Turkey to more actively join in containment efforts against Iran. In a complex calculus, the Kurds play a key role in keeping peace between these big powers.

Ankara and Tehran certainly closed ranks when the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, under the leadership of Massoud Barzani, overplayed its hand by pushing for an independence referendum last year. Despite enjoying excellent economic relations with Erbil, Ankara joined Baghdad and Tehran in opposing the Kurds. For Ankara, it was one thing to sign oil deals and construction contracts with Erbil when it was negotiating a peace deal at home with the PKK, the Kurdish nationalist party. But once the prospect of peace with Kurdish nationalists ended and Turkey was in turn embarked on a brutal military and political campaign against them, there was no longer any need to co-opt Kurdish nationalism in the region for domestic needs.

In Syria, where the Kurdish nationalist movement is allied to the PKK, there was even more Turkish opposition to any attempt at self-determination or autonomy. And Tehran is no fan of Syrian Kurds either, since it is facing its own Kurdish nationalism problem at home with a PKK-affiliated group. In short, the chief driver of the Turkish-Iranian rapprochement was the emergence of separatist Kurdish projects in Syria and Iraq.

Whenever Turkey and Iran enjoy such honeymoons it becomes almost a cliché for Turkish policymakers to praise the historic roots of their friendship, often making references to Turkey’s oldest peaceful border in the Middle East. It is indeed a historic fact that the last war between the two sides involved Ottoman Turks and Safavid Persians in the 16th century. Iran and Turkey are two countries that share deeply rooted imperial traditions. Both tend to look with some arrogance and disdain to post-colonial creations in the Arab world.

Yet, it is also an inescapable reality that Iran and Turkey are on different sides of the sectarian divide in the Middle East. In Syria, the bloodiest theater where this regional sectarian conflict is taking place, Ankara and Tehran have been supporters on opposing ends of the conflict. This was a much-welcomed development in the eyes of Gulf countries that counted on Turkish logistical support for the Syrian opposition.

The fact that Iran and Turkey are now cooperating in the Astana process is not a strategic realignment but more a tactical recalibration. In addition to the Kurdish threat, Ankara came to slowly accept that Bashar Al Assad will not be removed from power and that Russia has to give a green light to any Turkish military operation in Syria. When you add to this equation Ankara’s anger with Washington for supporting the Syrian Kurds, the logic of the Russian, Iranian and Turkish amity becomes even more apparent.

Finally, it is important to note that the GCC-Qatar crisis has inadvertently placed Turkey and Iran on the same side of Gulf rivalry. There are influential parties in both Ankara and Tehran that see the crisis as more than just a diplomatic standoff. In particular, the anti-American “Eurasianist” allies of President Recep Tayyib Erdogan perceive in the actions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE an attempt to alter the regional order in favor of “status quo powers” against “pro-democracy disruptors.” The status quo group includes the Saudi-led GCC, Jordan, Egypt and Israel against the disruptors composed of Turkey, Iran, Qatar and non-state actors such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that Turkey wants to improve its economic ties with Iran also support this theory. There is already significant energy cooperation, since Turkey imports a sizable amount of its oil and gas from Iran – 20 percent of gas and 30 percent of oil. There is also a mutually agreed intention to take bilateral trade, which stood at $9.65 billion in 2016, to $30 billion by 2025.

At the end, however, it is important to remain realistic about the limits of the current Turkish-Iranian rapprochement. After all is said, there are still very few areas where the interests of Turkey and Iran converge. Even in Syria, where there appears to be some tactical cooperation because of the Kurds, Iran is concerned about Turkey’s military presence in Afrin and beyond. Tehran and Damascus know that Ankara will not fully abandon the Syrian opposition in order to maintain a sphere of influence in the country. And in Iraq, Ankara is still firmly against the sectarian policies of Iran and sees in them as a threat to Turkey’s interests.

But perhaps most important of all is the fact that despite its problems with Washington, Turkey remains a Nato member. Crucially, it hosts a Nato radar and ballistic-missile defense system (based in Malatya near the Iranian border) closely monitoring Iran. The deployment of this system in 2011 was a major victory for the Obama administration. It firmly anchored Turkey’s position in Western efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Now, a more hawkish anti-Iran cabinet in Washington – with John Bolton and Mike Pompeo as the new national security advisor and secretary of state, respectively – will certainly pressure Ankara toward more active containment of Iran in the region.

Yet for all that, Ankara and Tehran are destined to maintain a relationship tempered by a range of issues that will keep them rivals, but not in danger of hostility toward each other. For that would go against the balance of their shared interests. In short, it’s all about the Kurds at the end.

Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.