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Iran and Turkey: Why two regional heavyweights need to de-escalate

Strong relations between Iran and Turkey should not fall prey to serious differences over the Syria conflict

It’s a bitter irony that Iran, a big Muslim nation located at the crossroads of the world’s energy hub, doesn’t maintain cordial relations with several major countries in the Muslim world, and in many cases, these bilateral relations have been unsteady and frosty, if not non-existent.

Iran’s relations with Egypt, the most populous Arab country, have been underdeveloped and diminutive since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. A sign of change was the visit by ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi to Tehran in August 2012 to attend the 16th Non-Aligned Movement summit.

The visit was reciprocated by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who travelled to Egypt in February 2013, the first such trip by an Iranian leader since 1979. However, since the 2013 coup in Egypt, the two nations have not taken serious steps to bolster their ties. Egypt still doesn’t have an embassy in Tehran, and is simply represented by a small interest office.

The same holds true for Iran’s relations with Jordan. As Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, Iran distanced itself from the Arab country, and relations never noticeably warmed, even though the Rouhani administration has been willing to revive the lost ties, and some visits were exchanged by the two countries’ officials.

Iran-Morocco relations have also experienced intermittent ups and downs. In March 2009, King Mohammed VI of Morocco severed diplomatic relations with Iran, citing Tehran’s purported efforts to promote Shia ideology in the North African kingdom and its alleged interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain. It was only in 2015 that the two countries decided to restore diplomatic relations.

It goes without saying that the history of Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia, the other major, indispensable Muslim powerhouse has been marred with disputes and tensions, culminating in the recent sparring over the execution of the noted Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by the Arab kingdom on 2 January, to which Iran protested sternly.

The whole episode ended in the dismal suspension of diplomatic relations between the two countries – a decision made by the Saudis unilaterally after the rampage at the Saudi diplomatic mission in the Iranian capital by a mob. Saudi's move was replicated by several other Arab, Muslim nations including Bahrain, Djibouti, Comoros, Somalia and Sudan. 

Excluding all these Muslim nations, Iran’s relations with Turkey have been exceptionally close and robust, even though punctuated with small rivalries that have been quite insignificant against the backdrop of several decades of affable exchanges between the two neighbours. There’s a sizeable Azeri-speaking minority in Iran comprising nearly 24 percent of the population. They associate with the people of Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan both culturally and linguistically, and the representations of Turkish culture are widely popular among them, including movies, music and literature.

Turkey is a popular tourism and business destination for Iranians. According to stats from Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, 1.7 million Iranians visited Turkey in 2015, ranking Iran the sixth leading source of visitors to Turkey tourists among some 90 countries.

While the Iranian passport suffers from a lack of international recognition and credit, Turkey is one of the few notable countries that offer visa-free travel to Iranians for up to 90 days. That’s why many Iranian families prefer to spend their holidays in Turkish cities without being concerned about visa limitations.

Moreover, Turkey is currently the most convenient place from which many Iranians wishing to travel to the United States and Canada apply for visas to the two North American countries in the longstanding absence of their embassies in Tehran – a big misfortune for Iranian students, scholars, journalists, sportsmen, artists and ordinary citizens.

At the same time, business ties linking Iran and Turkey have been significantly strengthened in recent years, with European Commission data indicating that Iran was Turkey’s fifth largest trade partner in 2014.

It’s quite evident that both nations benefit from growing trade ties, especially as Turkey relies on Iran as a dependable supplier of energy. In 2014, 26 percent of Turkey’s crude oil imports came from Iran. One year earlier, Turkey imported 20 percent of its natural gas from Iran. With Turkey mostly counting on Russia as a major supplier, it’s conceivable that with the recent spats with Moscow, Turkey’s thirst for Iran’s LNG will increase considerably.

And above all, Turkey loyally sided with Iran at the height of tensions over its nuclear programme, and along with Brazil, was one of the only two UN Security Council members to vote against Resolution 1929 in June 2010 that imposed stringent sanctions against Iran to force it abandon uranium enrichment and other sensitive parts of its nuclear activities.

Tensions over Syria

Given all the connections that make Iran-Turkey relations binding and resilient, there have been sporadic tensions between the two regional heavyweights over the question of Syria since the eruption of civil war in the Arab country in 2011.

Turkey had made it clear from the outset that the solution to the multi-sided armed conflict in Syria would be the installation of a government without Bashar al-Assad. Turkey’s Recep Tayyib Erdogan soon became impatient with Assad’s “savagery” and severed diplomatic relations with Syria in March 2012.

Iran, however, found itself the closest ally of Syria in the region and saw Bashar al-Assad as one of its few stalwart friends in the Arab world. Iran has been committed to keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, and the embattled Syrian president is perhaps indebted to Iran for retaining authority in the middle of what seems to be one of the most devastating proxy wars in contemporary times, having already claimed at least 250,000 lives in five years.

Even though the differences between Iran and Turkey surged over the crisis in Syria, moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani exercised considerable restraint and tried to diffuse tensions.

However, he was not the only leading player to have an impact. Hardliners in Tehran, who own giant media conglomerates and dominate national television, staged a massive propaganda campaign against Turkey, and specifically targeted Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accusing his family members of buying smuggled oil from the Islamic State terrorists – something which enraged the Turkish leader and prompted his blunt response. Iran’s state TV aired commercials openly discouraging Iranian citizens from travelling to Turkey, an “ISIS patron.”

In June 2014, President Hassan Rouhani, defying the hardliners, paid a visit to Turkey to signal that Iran-Turkey relations would improve unfalteringly. The presidents of the two countries chaired the first meeting of a joint committee for strategic cooperation that was set up for the first time. In April 2015, President Erdogan returned Rouhani’s visit by travelling to Tehran, even as the Iranian president was under immense pressure to call off the trip. More than 60 Iranian MPs had asked for the visit to be cancelled and the hard-line media and activists vociferously warned Rouhani against the consequences of a trip by Erdogan to Tehran.

Islamic solidarity

It’s completely understandable that the Syrian dilemma has pitted Iran and Turkey against each other as they are both involved in a quest for regional supremacy. Even some commentators espouse the dynamics of Shia-Sunni competition as a determining factor. Moreover, being in Bashar al-Assad’s camp or opposing him mostly has to do with the geopolitical interests of each side.

However, collaboration between Tehran and Ankara has been going on for decades so persistently and peacefully that it transcends the fate of Bashar al-Assad, and should not be affected by what seems to be a fringe issue between the two neighbours. Of course the destiny of the crisis-hit people of Syria matters, but as far as reason is concerned, it is long-standing relations between Turkey and Iran that supercede this particular conflict.

After all, Syria is a war-stricken country that needs serious international humanitarian assistance and committed multilateral diplomacy on the part of all the actors involved to get out of the current predicament. One or two nations cannot change the future of such a turbulent region by fighting ceaselessly.

It’s neither up to Iran nor Turkey to decide the future of Syria, as it’s something that has to be left to the Syrian people to choose. By clashing over whether Bashar al-Assad should be part of the transition process in Syria or not, Iran and Turkey simply complicate the status quo while making the distance between them more distant.

As the former Turkish president Abdullah Gul once said, Iran and Turkey share a border that has not changed since 1639. The relations between Iran and Turkey should not fall prey to the parochial gambits of the hardliners who always ignore the national interests of their people and fail to comprehend the reality of what defines the limits of diplomacy and peaceful coexistence.

Tensions that keep Iran and Turkey apart would be detrimental not only to the two nations but to the entire Muslim world, the same way as sectarian hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia undermine Islamic solidarity.

While Iran preaches Islamic union and solidarity between the Shias and Sunnis, it should put this ideal into practice and prove that it’s determined to come to terms with several Sunni countries that surround it and work with them in a meaningful way, both to serve its people, and to benefit the entire region.

- Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and media correspondent. He is staff writer with Iran Review and a reporter with the California-based Fair Observer. He has also contributed to Huffington Post, Your Middle East, International Policy Digest, Gateway House and Tehran Times.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, shows him (R) meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran on 7 April, 2015 (AFP/HO/ KHAMENEI.IR).

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