Are Turkey and Iran warming up to each other?
When Ankara shot down a Russian warplane over Turkish airspace, Tehran sided with Moscow
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told American lawmakers last month that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) “has actually pulled its troops back from Syria,” and that supreme leader Ali Khamenei “pulled a significant number of troops out.”
Tehran did not comment on this claim, but it was nonetheless welcomed by neighboring Turkey, which has been unhappy about Iranian-Russian cooperation in the Syrian conflict.
When Ankara shot down a Russian warplane over Turkish airspace, Tehran sided with Moscow, and President Hassan Rowhani accused Ankara of ties with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
However, Turkey and Iran rely on each other for vital resources. Ankara supported Tehran during the 10 years of nuclear talks, and was one of a few allies that defied the international embargo. Nonetheless, the Syrian conflict and Russia’s intervention have soured bilateral relations.
Few years ago, Iranian oil made up a significant component of Turkey’s energy imports. Because of sanctions that number has fallen since, but Ankara still sees Iran as an important trade partner.
Iranian involvement in Syria has been costly, so Russian intervention came at an opportune time for both Tehran and Damascus. Today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has the upper hand against his opponents due to Moscow.
However, neither Tehran nor Ankara want a long-term, heavy Russian presence in Syria, providing grounds for bilateral cooperation during the next round of talks on the conflict.
Neither Tehran nor Ankara want a long-term, heavy Russian presence in Syria, providing grounds for bilateral cooperation during the next round of talks on the conflictCamelia Entekhabi-Fard
The recent visit by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davotuglu to Tehran shows an improvement in ties. Davutoglu acknowledged on Saturday that Iran and Turkey differ on Syria, but said cooperation was necessary to end the bloodshed there. He said Turkey and Iran hope to expand their trade to $30 billion, triple the current amount.
The issue of transferring the S-300 missile system to Iran is a prime example of Russian uncertainty. Tehran and Moscow signed an $800 million contract for the S-300s in Dec. 2007, and another contract last year.
The office of Russian President Vladimir Putin published a decree lifting the ban on the missile transfer when he visited Tehran in November. The transfer was supposed to have taken place at the end of 2015 or in early 2016, but this has not yet happened. The disappointed Iranians are perhaps waiting for the results of the next round of Syria talks before confronting Moscow.
The nuclear deal may have placed greater importance on the economy than on air-defense capability. As such, boosting trade and economic ties with Turkey suits the pragmatic government of Iranian President Hassan Rowhani more than military cooperation with Russia. Tehran and Ankara are moving closer.
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a journalist, news commentator and writer who grew up during the Iranian Revolution and wrote for leading reformist newspapers. She is also the author of Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth - A Memoir of Iran. She lives in New York City and Dubai. She can be found on Twitter: @CameliaFard