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Turkey-Iran Relations after the JDP

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Bayram Sinkaya

The Future of Turkish-Iranian Relations

Texte intégral

  • 162 Ayman, ‘Turkey and Iran: Between Friendly Competition and Fierce Rivalry,’ p.6.

1Although successive states and governments have ruled over the contemporary territories of Turkey and Iran, they have been neighbours for over five hundred years. Over time, they have not only experienced numerous wars, fierce competition and instances of intimate relations, but also developed and maintained a culture of diplomacy. That diplomatic culture, based on the preservation of the ‘fine line’ between cooperation, friendly competition and fierce rivalry, has been partly dictated by geopolitics, history and structural differences between the two countries, and partly shaped by the ruling elite.162

  • 163 Özdamar and Özcan, ‘Uneasy Neighbors…’
  • 164 Süleyman Elik, Iran-Turkey Relations, 1979-2011: Conceptualizing the Dynamics of Politics, Religion (...)

2Geopolitics has played a crucial role in Turkish-Iranian relations throughout history.163 Located on two edges of a key geographic area bridging Asia and Europe, political power in these respective territories emerged as barriers limiting the expansion of the other’s influence. Rising imperial powers based in these countries tempted them to advance against the other, which led to numerous confrontations throughout history. The declining power of the rival imperial states based in these two countries lessened the expansionist tension and facilitated relatively stable, and closer relations between the two countries. Geopolitics in modern times has dictated new concerns and provided new opportunities to Turkey and Iran. Modern Turkish and Iranian states have emerged as middle powers roughly equivalent to each other. Vulnerable to external interventions and internal challenges, Turkey and Iran have prioritised the preservation of the status quo on their borders and in their neighbourhood.164 In this respect, there have been two long-term and fundamental challenges to the status quo and security of the respective states; the Kurdish question and the Azerbaijan question.

  • 165 Sinkaya, ‘The Kurdish Question in Iran and its effects on Iran-Turkey Relations.’

3The Kurdish people have dispersed into four countries in accordance with the post-War settlements subsequent to WWI. Various Kurdish movements revolted against this status quo in each country mostly seeking autonomy, which was regarded by the regional states, that is Iran and Turkey, as a fundamental challenge to national security and territorial integrity. Additionally, the countries that have been hosting a considerable Kurdish minority population have dreaded the idea of an independent Kurdish state in the region, which emerged as a perception of a common threat that has brought regional states together. However, regional states have a practice of exploiting the Kurdish revolts in neighbouring countries either to force concessions from neighbouring hostile regimes, or for the purpose of ensuring their own national security. As a result, throughout the twentieth century and after, the Kurdish question has emerged as source of both contention and cooperation between the regional countries.165 Considering the persistence of regional geopolitics around the Kurdish people and the challenges to that status quo, we can safely argue that the Kurdish question will continue to be an influential issue in the future of Turkish-Iranian relations.

4The history of the Azerbaijan question arguably dates back to the Golestan and Turkmenchay treaties between Iran and Russia in the early nineteenth century, which culminated in the division of ancient Azerbaijan between Russia and Iran. The rise of Turkish nationalism among the Azerbaijani people in the early twentieth century, and the temporary independence of Azerbaijan that remained beyond the borders of Iran, turned the Azerbaijan question into a security issue for the Iranian establishment. Since then, successive Iranian governments have had misgivings with the potential Turkish incitement of nationalist and separatist feeling among the Azerbaijani people, who constitute the largest minority group in Iran. The independence of the Azerbaijan Republic along with some other Turkic states in Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has not only revived the Turkish interests in these countries, but also the conventional Iranian fears of Pan-Turkism. Although Turkish and Azerbaijani governments have consciously avoided stirring unrest among the Turkic people in Iran, the Azerbaijan question remains an important concern on the security agenda of Iran.

5The geopolitical location of Turkey and Iran also compels them to maintain at least a minimum level of cooperation between their respective governments. Firstly, as adjoining neighbouring states they need to coordinate their actions for the protection of their borders and for the security of the border areas. Indeed, the issue of border security and the related Turkish-Iranian dealings have been on the agenda since the turn of the twentieth century, and it will likely continue to be.

6Secondly, they need to use routes passing through the other’s territories for transportation of goods either for the purpose of exportation or importation. Trade, transportation and issues related to the safety of trade routes were on the agenda of bilateral relations even at the height of the imperial rivalry between the Ottomans and the Safavids, and continues to be an influential factor in contemporary Turkish-Iranian relations. A considerable amount of Iranian imports from the Western countries, and its exports to European markets are transported via Turkey. Likewise, a considerable amount of Turkish trade with the Central Asian countries passes through the Iranian territories. For this reason, it is not surprising that the Joint Economic Council meetings between Iran and Turkey that were institutionalised in the mid-1980s have emerged as the most persistent pattern in Ankara-Tehran relations.

7Finally, the new energy geopolitics has started to effect Turkish-Iranian relations, especially since the mid-twentieth century. The growing share of oil as an energy source in contemporary economic structures has led Turkey, an oil poor country, to be dependent on oil imports. Considering the rich reserves in Iran, successive Turkish governments have approached Tehran to match its needs for oil. Likewise, the growing share of natural gas in present-day economies since the 1990s has again led Turkey to turn towards Iran, which has the second largest gas reserves. Thus, Turkish dependency on energy imports has coincided with Iranian search for markets for its oil and gas, which has reinforced Turkish-Iranian energy dealings. Until a fundamental transformation of energy geopolitics, energy trade will be on the agenda of both Ankara and Tehran.

8Additionally, Turkish-Iranian relations are not immune to the effects of regional developments and great power politics. Following the establishment of nation-states in their respective countries in the early 1920s, either because of their preoccupation with internal challenges, or because of the dominant role of the great powers around Turkey and Iran, both countries avoided seeking influence beyond their borders. Subsequent to the rise of Cold War, both Ankara and Tehran allied with the United States against the Soviet threat, which culminated in close relations between them. However, Iran’s reversal to anti-Americanism after the revolution of 1979 adversely affected Turkish-Iranian relations. Moreover, the geopolitical changes in the Caucasus and Central Asia in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the geopolitical transformation of the Middle East following the two Gulf Wars, gave Turkey and Iran an appetite to increase their influence in these areas. Thus, Ankara and Tehran entered into a fierce regional competition that continued with an inability for either to dominate over the other, or for the return of great powers, or for the rise of common threats. Considering the imperial background and cultural influences of both states which reach beyond their political borders, we could estimate that the geopolitical transformations and emerging power vacuums in the common neighbourhoods of Turkey and Iran, will likely lead to revival of regional competition in different forms in future as well.

9Against this geopolitical background, the different religious and ethnolinguistic identities of Iran and Turkey are argued to play effective roles in Turkish-Iranian relations. Although both countries have multicultural societal structures, there is a dominant Persian linguistic identity and Shiite religious identity in Iran against the predominantly ethnically Turkish and religiously Sunni identity in Turkey. However, rather than playing a defining role per se, as evidenced by the lack of continuous fighting between the two countries, identity differences are mostly regarded as part of geopolitical considerations. Thus, identity differences have played a complementary role in the regional rivalry between Turkey and Iran, and their security concerns. Therefore, sectarian and national differences between the two countries will continue to remain in the future, however, they will likely play their role in the case of a regional competition coloured with sectarianism.

  • 166 Gareth Jenkins, Occasional Allies, Enduring Rivals: Turkey’s Relations with Iran, Central Asia Cauc (...)

10In this regard, the role of elite and political leaders has come to play relatively more effective roles through their assessments of geopolitics, and their foreign policy preferences. That is why any shift in leadership in either country may culminate in considerable changes in Turkish-Iranian relations. In this respect, successive JDP governments have opted for enhancing Turkey’s relations with Iran for different economic, strategic and political reasons. They have employed rationalisation, institutionalisation, and compartmentalisation strategies to deal with Iran, which have facilitated the steady growth of Turkish-Iranian relations. The rationalisation process has led to a downgrading of ideological considerations from the agenda of bilateral relations that facilitated the focus on potential opportunities and issues of common interest. The frequency of diplomatic exchanges has increased considerably and has culminated in the formalisation of a number of agreements, and the institutionalisation of diplomatic relations (See Tables 1 and 2). Finally, the compartmentalisation strategy has added a multi-dimensional perspective to Turkish-Iranian relations and brought relieving issues of cooperation from the adverse effects of contention in various fields. While regional context has mostly played a conducive role for the improvement of Ankara-Tehran relations, at times, it has also instigated competition between the two countries. Nevertheless, the rationalisation, institutionalisation and compartmentalisation have not meant the removal of all obstacles and the conciliation of all differences between the two countries. Indeed, as Jenkins highlighted, there is an asymmetry and a contrast between the repeated enthusiasm in the public declarations of officials to further bilateral relations and commitments to future cooperation, and a failure to translate that rhetoric into action. Moreover, there have been considerable fluctuations in Ankara-Tehran relations throughout the seventeen years of JDP power in Turkey,166 which indicates the limits of an analysis which solely relies on elite preferences.

  • 167 Sinkaya, ‘Iran and Turkey Relations after the Nuclear Deal: A Case for Compartmentalization’.
  • 168 Karabekir Akkoyunlu, ‘Turkey’s Iranian Conundrum: A Delicate Balancing Act’, in A.Kadıoğlu, Ö.Karlı (...)

11Actually, through the decades of neighbourhood, Turkey and Iran have developed a complicated relationship that defies simplistic explanations based exclusively on geopolitics, geo-economics, identity, and elite preferences. It is possible to detect two simultaneous but contrasting trends in Turkish-Iranian relations, one tilting towards competition and the other tilting towards cooperation.167 The compartmentalisation strategy employed by the respective governments in Ankara and Tehran to separate issues of contention and conciliation, have facilitated the maintenance of a ‘fine line’ between cooperation, friendly competition and fierce rivalry. The level of cooperation or rivalry between them is shaped by the mutual or clashing interests of the two countries which are influenced by geopolitics and elite preferences.168 This diplomatic culture is likely to continue into the foreseeable future of Turkish-Iranian relations.

Appendix

Table 1. Visits paid by High-Level Iranian officials to Turkey, 2002-2018

Official

Date

Occasion

Mohammed Reza Aref, Vice-President

29 Apr. 2003

State visit

President Ahmadinejad

Aug. 2008

State visit

President Ahmadinejad

Nov. 2009

OIC – ISEDAK Summit

Mohammad Reza Rahimi Vice-President

5 Jan. 2010

Meeting of Aghanistan’s Neighbors, Istanbul

President Ahmadinejad

7 June 2010

CICA Conference, Istanbul

Mohammad Reza Rahimi, Vice-President

15 Sept. 2010

State visit

President Ahmadinejad

23 Dec. 2010

The ECO Summit

President Ahmadinejad

8 May 2011

UN Conference on Least Developed Countries

Mohammad Reza Rahimi, Vice-President

5 Oct. 2012

State visit

President Rouhani

9 June 2014

State visit- 1st meeting of the HCC

President Rouhani

15-16 Apr. 2016

OIC Summit in Istanbul,

3rd meeting of the HCC in Ankara

Ishaq Jahangiri, Vice-President

19-20 Oct. 2017

State visit to Ankara and D-8 Summit in Istanbul

President Rouhani

13 Dec. 2017

Extra-ordinary Summit of OIC, Istanbul

President Rouhani

3-4 Apr. 2018

2nd Iran-Russia-Turkey Summit meeting within the framework of Astana process

President Rouhani

19 May 2018

Extra-ordinary OIC Summit, Istanbul

President Rouhani

19-20 Dec. 2018

5th meeting of the HCC

Source: These events are collected from various news reports and chronologies on Iranian-Turkish relations. It excludes visits of speakers of parliament, foreign ministers, and ministers.

Table 2. Visits paid by High-Level Turkish officials to Iran, 2002-2018

Official

Date

Occasion

President Ahmet Necdet Sezer

12 June 2002

State visit

PM Abdullah Gül

12 Jan. 2003

Looming Iraq War

President Ahmet Necdet Sezer

18 Feb. 2004

Summit meeting of D-8 Organization

PM Erdoğan

28-29 July 2004

State visit

PM Erdoğan

2-3 Dec. 2006

State visit

President Abdullah Gül

11 Mar. 2009

10TH Summit of ECO

PM Erdoğan

26 Oct. 2009

State visit

PM Erdoğan

17 May 2010

Tehran declaration

President Abdullah Gül

13 Feb 2011

State visit

PM Erdoğan

28-29 Jan. 2014

State visit – Joint declaration for the establishment of High-Level Cooperation Council (HCC)

President Erdoğan

7-8 Apr. 2015

State visit – 2nd meeting of the HCC

PM Davutoğlu

4-5 Mar. 2016

State visit

President Erdoğan

4 Oct. 2017

4th meeting of the HCC

President Erdoğan

7 Sept. 2018

3rd Iran-Russia-Turkey Summit meeting within the framework of Astana process

Source: These events are collected from various news reports and chronologies on Iranian-Turkish relations. It excludes visits of speakers of parliament, foreign ministers, and ministers.

Table 3. Turkey-Iran Trade Relations, 2002-2018 (million $)

Years

Turkish Export

Turkish Import

Total Trade Volume

2002

300

918

1.218

2003

523

1.857

2.380

2004

803

1.950

2.753

2005

905

3.469

4.375

2006

1.057

5.623

6.680

2007

1.380

6.600

7.980

2008

2.028

8.199

10.228

2009

2.024

3.405

5.403

2010

3.042

7.644

10.687

2011

3.590

12.461

16.051

2012

9.922

11.964

21.887

2013

4.193

10.383

14.577

2014

3.888

9.833

13.721

2015

3.665

6.096

9.761

2016

4.966

4.699

9.665

2017

3.259

7.492

10.751

2018

2,394

6,931

9,325

Source: ‘Türkiye-İran Dış Ticareti,’ T.C. Ticaret Bakanlığı, 28 March 2019, https://ticaret.gov.tr/​yurtdisi-teskilati/​guney-asya/​iran/​ulke-profili/​ekonomik-gorunum/​turkiye-ile-ticaret (accessed on May 30, 2019).

Table 4. Exchange of Tourists between Turkey and Iran, 2002-2018

Years

Number of Iranian tourists visiting Turkey

Number of Turkish tourists visiting Iran

2002

432,281

N.A.

2003

494,977

180,000

2004

631,522

250,000

2005

957,245

210,000

2006

865,942

140,000

2007

1,058,206

140,000

2008

1,134,965

150,000

2009

1,383,261

200,000

2010

1,885,097

301,581

2011

1,879,304

293,683

2012

1,186,000

258,072

2013

1,196,801

203,039

2014

1,590,664

161,610

2015

1,700,385

163,500

2016

1,665,160

243, 559

2017

2,541,968

N.A.

2018

2,001,744

N.A.

Source: Data is retrieved from various sources including TÜRSAB, ‘2017 Tahran Uluslararası Turizm Fuarı Değerlendirme Raporu,’ https://www.tursab.org.tr/​apps/​OldFiles/​/dosya/​15825/​tahran-turizm-fuar-raporu_15825_6240747.pdf (accessed on May 30, 2019); T.C. Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı, Turizm İstatisikleri, http://yigm.kulturturizm.gov.tr/​TR-9851/​turizm-istatistikleri.html (accessed on May 30, 2019); Ceyhun Can Ozan, ‘İran ve Türkiye Turizm İlişkileri, İRAM, September 2017, https://www.iramcenter.org/​d_hbanaliz/​A_Ceyhun_Can_Ozcan_Yran_ve_Turkiye_Turizm_YliYkileri.pdf (accessed on May 30, 2019); ‘Türkiye-İran Ekonomik İlişkileri Bilgi Notu,’ https://kuto.org.tr/​site/​assets/​files/​1585/​turkiye-iran_ekonomik_ve_ticari_iliskiler_bilgi_notu.pdf (accessed on May 30, 2019).

Notes

162 Ayman, ‘Turkey and Iran: Between Friendly Competition and Fierce Rivalry,’ p.6.

163 Özdamar and Özcan, ‘Uneasy Neighbors…’

164 Süleyman Elik, Iran-Turkey Relations, 1979-2011: Conceptualizing the Dynamics of Politics, Religion and Security in Middle-Power States (Oxon: Routledge, 2013).

165 Sinkaya, ‘The Kurdish Question in Iran and its effects on Iran-Turkey Relations.’

166 Gareth Jenkins, Occasional Allies, Enduring Rivals: Turkey’s Relations with Iran, Central Asia Caucasus Institute, Silk Road Paper, May 2012, p.6-7.

167 Sinkaya, ‘Iran and Turkey Relations after the Nuclear Deal: A Case for Compartmentalization’.

168 Karabekir Akkoyunlu, ‘Turkey’s Iranian Conundrum: A Delicate Balancing Act’, in A.Kadıoğlu, Ö.Karlı, K.Öktem (eds.), Another Empire? Turkey’s foreign policy in a new century (Istanbul, Bilgi University Press, 2012).

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