What’s behind Turkey and Iran’s strategic friendship?

The growing Iranian-Turkish partnership in the region is due to the declining influence and power of the United States

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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A new Iranian-Turkish partnership has been evolving, particularly after the signs of rapprochement between the United States and the Islamic Republic emerged, and after the interim nuclear deal was reached.

In addition, the growing Iranian-Turkish partnership in the region is due to the declining influence and power of the United States in the region.

Almost a year since his election, President Hassan Rowhani is visiting Turkey this week; this landmark trip would be the first official high-level meeting between Tehran and Ankara in nearly 18 years.

The last official visit to Turkey by an Iranian president was in 1996 by Akbar Rafsanjani, marred by controversy due to the fact that he declined to visit the mausoleum of modern Turkey’s revered founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. This is considered a common practice fulfilled by presidents.

The Iranian-Turkish thaw in relations and the rise in bilateral cooperation under Rowhani’s and Erdogan’s governments was initiated by the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to Tehran in order to attend the presidential oath of Hassan Rowhani. In order to further strengthen bilateral ties, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan later made another official visit to Iran.

Several reasons have contributed to pushing Turkey closer to Iran and to create a new page in Iranian-Turkish cooperation and partnership.

Iran is Turkey’s third largest export market. Turkish, as well as Iranian, companies and firms are eager to boost their investments

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

First of all, Turkey, which was once regarded as a model for Islamic democracy in the region by the Western world, has been witnessing a decline in its central role in the Middle East. The U.S., or other Western countries, are less frequently seeking Turkey’s recommendations and policies regarding crucial issues in the Middle East.

From the Western powers’ perspectives, Turkey’s pivotal role further declined after tensions emerged between Ankara and the West over several other issues; such the uprising in Turkey against Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, as well as the recent allegations against Erdogan for being implicated in several sanctions-busting schemes. These sanctions-busting schemes have allegedly assisted the Islamic Republic in skirting sanctions and conducting illicit pay transactions.

In addition, Turkey’s ties with other countries in the region have been recently negatively affected due to Turkey’s stance on, and foreign policies in, Egypt. Moreover, after four years, Turkey’s relationship with Israel is still considered strained over the case of the flotilla that was heading to Gaza.

Third, the declining American influence in the region and the recent progress in nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers, have pushed Turkey closer to the Islamic Republic.

As a final and comprehensive nuclear deal seems to be tangible, Turkey would again desire to play a critical role in the region as a gateway between the West and the Islamic Republic. This is particularly crucial as the West is attempting to find approaches to tap into Iran’s approximately $500 billion economy.

Finally, Iran is Turkey’s third largest export market. Turkish, as well as Iranian, companies and firms are eager to boost their investments. The Iran-Turkey economic and trade partnership was approximately $20 billion in 2012, with vows to boost the trade to nearly $30 billion. According to Reuters, trade between Turkey and Iran hit $2.1 billion in January and February 2014. Mr. Gul pointed out, “we target to bring it up to $30 billion. Both sides have the will and the potential to make it happen.”

Regarding President Rowhani’s visit, Rowhani declared from his Twitter account that the two nations signed 10 new agreements. Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reported this week that “the 10 cooperation pacts signed between Iran and Turkey included agreements on joint film production, agreements on cultural, scientific, and educational exchanges, tourism cooperation programs, cultural heritage programs, cooperation between the two countries’ post organizations and cooperation between the two countries’ standard institutes.”

In addition, Turkey significantly relies on Iran’s oil and gas for its economy. Despite the economic sanctions and Western powers’ concerns, Ankara thinks it is critical to keep the economic alliance with Tehran and have access to some of Iran’s largest oil and gas reserves. A recent oil sale reached approximately $12 billion, in which Turkey and Iran reportedly evaded the economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic by exchanging gold rather than dollars.

From Turkey’s perspective, having strong links to the Islamic Republic would also assist Turkey to utilize Iran’s influence over the Iraqi Shiite-led government, for reaching significant oil deals.

From the Islamic Republic’s prism and stands

When it comes to the geopolitics and balance of power in the region, Iranian leaders do not view other Arab countries in the gulf as natural allies, but instead as competitors and rivals. This is a primary reason that makes Iranian leaders view Turkey as a major and key strategic, geopolitical, and economic ally in the region.

Secondly, Iranian leaders have been capable of avoiding U.S. and international economic sanctions while trading with Turkey. In other words, the Turkish market is a crucial platform for Iran’s economy and Iranian firms that export nearly thousands of products to Turkey.

Third, since Turkey is a member of NATO, Iran needs the cooperation with Turkey to send trustworthy and constructive signals to the West. Rowhani’s foreign policy agenda of “prudence and moderation” is aimed at easing Iran’s isolation on the global stage. Finally, both Iran and Turkey view the Kurdish communities near their borders as a significant opposition to their consolidated power.

Due to the geopolitical, strategic, and economic landscapes (along with common objectives and interests), both Turkey and the Islamic Republic appear to need each other’s cooperation more than anytime before. Although there are some major tensions and disagreements over the Syrian crisis and Egypt, Turkey and Iran bear more shared objectives that draw them to each other, rather than push them apart.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar as Harvard University, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University and Harvard scholar. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at [email protected].

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