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Net zero crises before Vienna

Hassan Fahs

Published: Updated:

Does the calm diplomacy that Tehran has adopted in the region in the past few weeks signify a change in its involvement in the crises-stricken region of West Asia? Or is it a new level of its regional strategy to help it overcome the stalemate it reached after tensions with many regional states escalated and nearly threw away all the investments Tehran had made in various issues?

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Some indicators suggest that a different methodology is starting to take shape in Iran’s political behavior at the current stage, perhaps governed by Tehran’s needs ahead of the resumption of the Vienna negotiations to revive the nuclear deal with the G4+1 and Washington indirectly.

Perhaps the most recent and most prominent event in this context is Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu's visit to Tehran and the meetings he held with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir Abdollahian and President Ebrahim Raissi. The visit serves as a prelude to the expected visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Tehran before the end of this year, and follows a series of escalatory steps taken by Turkey in Iran’s vicinity, including the Azerbaijan-Armenia war, the Afghanistan dossier, and the chronic crisis in Syria. These steps helped further muddle the scene for Iran and deepened its fears of being dragged into a new regional crisis that may topple all the tactical steps in which Iran invested in its attempt to crystallize its strategy in West Asia in general and the Middle East in particular.

From Iran’s standpoint, Erdogan’s contradictory policies have placed Turkey before several complex crises, due to the iron fist policy with which the Turkish President dealt with the troubles in the region in his bid to reinforce his country’s position on the map of international and regional policies, regardless of the repercussions this could have on Turkey’s ties with regional states and neighboring Iran in particular, with whom relations witnessed increased tensions.

During his meeting with his Iranian counterpart, the Turkish Foreign Minister recited a few verses of Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri’s “Where is the friend's house?”. This was a signal which Tehran understood as an indirect apology for Erdogan's allusion to separatism in the poem verse he recited while addressing the Azeri community in Iran during a military parade he attended in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, following the war with Armenia.

The visit coincides with Turkish escalation on the water warfare front following the recent announcement of the construction of a new dam on the Tigris River, with all that such a move entails for Iranian and Iraqi water resources. Still, Tehran chose to overlook the Turkish provocations, despite their expansion. The growing scope of these provocations is evidenced by Ankara’s bid to establish a tripartite alliance with Azerbaijan and Pakistan in South Caucasus. The repercussions that a Turkish-Pakistani rapprochement could have on the Afghanistan crisis are further exacerbated by the fact that Iran still struggles to find a way to deal with the political developments on its eastern border following the Taliban’s control.

As Ankara’s crises worsen, especially with the collapse of its currency and the dire effects on its economy, perhaps Turkey is seeking to leverage the possible breakthrough in Iran’s relations with the West in the coming period after both Tehran and the G5+1 voiced serious intentions to revive the nuclear deal and lift sanctions. What this means for Turkey is the possibility of cooperation with Tehran and a potential increase in trade and economic exchanges to up to $20 billion a year. On the other hand, Tehran believes cooperation with Turkey is crucial to reduce tensions in the region. This belief is reinforced by Ankara’s successful expansion of its influence to Iran’s vicinity, through its relations with Azerbaijan and South Caucasus north and its role in the Afghanistan crisis east. As for the southern and western vicinity, Turkey has direct influence on some Iraqi political forces, especially within Sunni communities, in addition to its efforts to reconcile ties with Gulf states and its role in Syria, of course, which is the most sensitive arena for Iran and the biggest challenge to the expansion of its influence in the Middle East.
Iran may be able to live with the Turkish beehive in its vicinity. It could repair relations with Azerbaijan or start a direct dialogue with the Taliban led by its special envoy Hassan Kazemi Qumi (a Quds Force leader and former Ambassador to Iraq). It could welcome election results in Iraq and the resulting change in the weight of political parties, even if this change comes at the expense of groups loyal to it. These are all issues in which the Turkish role, however big or small, cannot be overlooked. But Syria remains the biggest challenge for both Tehran and Ankara. Both parties are building their strategies in Syria on the basis of the imminent US withdrawal, which pushes Iran to delicately and attentively address Turkish fears of increased Kurdish ambition to enshrine zones of influence controlled by Kurdish forces that Ankara classifies as terrorist groups, such as the PKK and its ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces.

While Tehran pushes for the reunification of Syria under the central government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Turkey’s presence in eastern Syria and its attempt to establish a buffer zone separating its border from Kurdish zones in Syria aim at foiling possibilities of communication with Iraq’s Kurds. This presence forces Tehran to seek understandings with Ankara to prevent a potential confrontation with the Syrian Army on the ground in the battle to regain Idlib, which would not only inflict human and material damage, but would also thwart the serious political solution process that has burgeoned following the recent Arab rapprochement with Damascus and al-Assad.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Independent Arabia.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.