Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Iran and Turkey move closer

Relations between Turkey and Iran are improving, despite disagreements between the two countries on the conflict in Syria, writes Camelia Entekhabifard

Al-Ahram Weekly

Iran has reduced the number of its fighters in Syria, according to US Secretary of State John Kerry.

“The IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] has actually pulled its troops back from Syria. Ayatollah Khamenei pulled a significant number of troops out. Their presence is actually reduced in Syria,” Kerry told US lawmakers in a reference to Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei on 25 February.

Iran did not comment on the claim but the news was welcomed by Turkey, which has been unhappy about the activities of Iranian and Russian forces in the Syrian conflict.

When the Turks shot down a Russian fighter jet on the border with Syria last year, Iran took Russia’s side, and Iranian media outlets and social media have strongly criticised the current government of Turkey.

Even Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has taken an unfriendly tone towards Turkey, accusing its government of cooperating with the terrorist Islamic State (IS) group.

Turkey and Iran rely on each other for vital resources, however. Turkey’s support during the 10 years of the Iran nuclear talks was essential, and Turkey was one of the few countries that did not completely observe the international embargo on Iran.

But the conflict in Syria and the Russian intervention have soured relations between the two neighbouring countries, even if post-sanctions business opportunities have attracted Turkish businessmen to Iran.

In 2011, Iranian oil made up a total of 29 per cent of all Turkey’s imports, reaching close to 51 per cent of all imported oil coming into Turkey. That number has now fallen, but Turkey still sees Iran as an important trading partner.

For Iran, slowly recovering from international sanctions, supporting the expense of its involvement in the Syrian conflict has not been easy. Russia has intervened in support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad at a good time for Iran, due to these expenses, and has bolstered the regime in Damascus.

Today, Al-Assad has the upper hand in much of Syria, thanks to the Russian intervention. But the continuation of the Russian presence in Syria is not what Iran would like to see, and nor indeed would Turkey.

Ankara and Tehran are thus likely to cooperate more closely during the next round of talks on Syria. The recent visit of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to Tehran shows that the two nations have also decided to come closer.

Davutoğlu acknowledged on Saturday during his visit that Iran and Turkey differ on Syria but said cooperation between the two countries is necessary to end the bloodshed there. He said Turkey and Iran hope to expand their trade to $30 billion, or triple the current amount, and this will require improved relations.

Iran has never trusted the Russians, and the country’s history is replete with stories of Russian plotting and betrayal. But it may be that Iran has this time got the better of the Russians by engaging them directly in the conflict in Syria.

In the post-war period, Iranians may be welcomed in Syria more than the Russians because of historical ties and also because Russia is now directly linked with the survival of the Al-Assad regime.

Iranians also remember Turkish assistance during the harshest period of the sanctions against Iran.

Delays in the delivery of S-300 missiles to Tehran is another example of Russian uncertainty. Tehran and Moscow signed an $800 million contract for the S-300 missiles in December 2007, but the contract was broken when the Russians claimed that the deal was a violation of international sanctions against Iran.

Last April, the two countries signed a fresh agreement on the missiles after Iran reached its nuclear agreement with the Western powers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin published a decree lifting the ban on the S-300 transfers when he visited Tehran last November. The missiles were supposed to be delivered by the end of the year or in early 2016, but so far no sign of this has taken place, and the Iranians may be waiting for the next round of the Syria talks before confronting the Russians over the long-awaited delivery.

The unfulfilled contract for the S-300 missiles has obsessed Tehran for years. As a result of the nuclear deal, however, the economy may now have more priority than air defence capabilities.

Improved trade and economic relations with Turkey suit the pragmatic government of Rouhani more than greater military cooperation with Russia. In this time of calculations, Iran and Turkey are coming closer.

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