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Why Turkey and Iran are two odd allies

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Published: Updated:

The Turkish-Iranian relationship seems to have become more complicated in the recent months. In addition, the lifting of sanctions on Iran appears to mark a new era between Istanbul and Tehran.

On the surface, tensions and rhetorical disputes between Ankara and Tehran are escalating. Lately, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Iran of attempting to dominate the Middle East. Iranian lawmakers also put pressure on Hassan Rowhani to stand more forcefully against Turkey’s actions.

Will this heightened rhetoric lead to a major dispute or military stand-off between the Islamic Republic and Turkey?

Ankara and Tehran need each other

Geopolitically speaking, Iranian and Turkish leaders have opposing views on most critical issues in the region. Both countries strongly stand against each other regarding the Syrian civil war; Turkey is opposing Bashar al-Assad, hosting oppositional groups while Iran is fully backing Assad’s Alawite-state militarily and financially. In Yemen, Turkey has also opposed Iran’s military support for Houthi militias.

The recent heated rhetoric between Turkey and Iran will not rise into a major dispute. They have managed to settle their profound geopolitical differences mainly due to the convergence of economic interests.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

The second issue is linked to the Kurds. This is critical since Turkey and Iran have the largest and second-largest Kurdish population in the region. Although they both oppose their Kurdish populations desire to declare independence, Ankara and Tehran are competing in the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI). Iran suppresses its own Kurdish population, but it has utilized the Kurds in other countries as a political leverage against those nations.

The KRI already has formidable economic ties with the Islamic Republic. In addition, Iran has managed to strengthen its military and strategic relationships with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). As the KRG President Massoud Barzani has pointed out “Iran was the first country to provide us with weapons and ammunition”. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), located mainly in the south and east of Iraqi Kurdistan, also enjoys Iran’s military support.

Turkey views Iran’s support for the PUK as a national security threat. Turkey is also concerned that Iranian leaders are increasing their influence in Iraq through various alliances in order to limit other regional power’s influence. By increasing its influence in the KRG, Iran can potentially force Turkey to reshape its opposing policies towards the Islamic Republic, Syria and Iraq.

Ideologically speaking, they differ as Turkey is a secular state with secular constitution, and Iran has a theocratic political establishment. Turkey has always been concerned about Iran’s attempts to export its Shiite and revolutionary ideals, alter the regional order and tip the regional balance of power in its Revolutionary Guards’ favor.

Economic convergence of interests

However, none of the aforementioned critical disagreements and geopolitical rivalries are going to lead to a major military confrontation or break up the ties between Tehran and Ankara. The major reason is that Turkey is in desperate need of gas and oil, and Iran is in need of Turkey’s cash: an economic convergence of interests.

Economically speaking, the major regional beneficiary of the nuclear deal is Turkey. Turkey is a key customer of Iranian oil and gas -Iran is the second largest gas exporter to Turkey. Turkey hopes that the lifting of sanctions will bring Western and Turkish companies to invest in Iran’s gas infrastructure in order to speed up production. One way that Turkey could decrease it energy dependence on Iran is if Qatar provides Ankara with the needed gas supplies.

Turkey is searching to place itself as the major energy hub between European countries and Iran for gas and oil exports. This will minimize the cost of the expensive gas contracts that Turkey is currently paying to Iran.

Before the Arab spring, Turkey voted against imposing new sanctions on Iran through United Nations Security Council resolution. By using different methods of payments such as gold, it also assisted Iran to bypass economic sanctions.

Moreover, both countries have significant trade partnership in other areas as well. Trade between Ankara and Tehran has risen to approximately 14 billion in 2014. And as Riza Eser, chairman of the Turkey-Iran Business Council, pointed out Ankara is attempting to increase trade with Tehran up to $30 billion in two years. Turkey alongside China and United Arab Emirates are the top three trade partners of Iran.

Ankara attempts to conduct a balancing act between Iranian hardliners and moderates, and often it tones down its rhetoric, because it is cognizant of the fact that Iranian hardliners- such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps- do not want to completely give their monopoly over the energy sector to Western and Turkish companies, and they view Turkey with suspicion.

The recent heated rhetoric between Turkey and Iran will not rise into a major dispute. Since the 1639 Treaty of Qhasr-e Shirin, Iran and Turkey has maintained their relations. They have managed to settle their profound geopolitical differences mainly due to the convergence of economic interests. More fundamentally, the lifting of sanctions on Iran will bring Istanbul and Tehran closer together due their shared economic interests.

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Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC. He can be contacted at: Dr.Rafizadeh@post.harvard.edu, or on Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh

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