Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan in Iran

The announcement of a forthcoming visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Iran is part of an ongoing shift in Turkish foreign policy, writes Rania Makram

Al-Ahram Weekly

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi said this week that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would soon visit Tehran, although an exact date had yet to be decided, in an announcement that has sparked discussion of what sort of alliances the region may now see as the visit coincides with important domestic developments in Turkey in the wake of July’s failed coup.

Turkish foreign policy appears to be shifting as differences with the US have grown and the gap between Turkey and the EU has widened in the last few months. The announcement also comes after a flurry of other visits, most significantly the Turkish president’s trip to Russia earlier this month and a visit to Iran by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusolgu a few days ago. US Secretary of State John Kerry is also scheduled to stop over in Turkey soon.

Erdogan’s forthcoming visit to Iran seems to be designed to bridge the gulf between the two countries, especially their differing positions on Syria. But the two countries’ previous stances show that they are linked by strategic interests that will likely keep disagreements from escalating.

Disputes between Turkey and Iran have been rationally managed, based on the principle that neither should constitute a political or security threat to the other. This has been apparent in the Syrian conflict, where though the two states are diametrically opposed in their stances on the conflict this has not led to open hostility despite an uptick in tensions.

Erdogan’s visit also cannot be separated from wider developments in the region and emerging alliances between regional parties and allies outside the region. The failed coup attempt continues to reverberate in Turkey, and the retaliatory measures taken by Erdogan at home have had consequences for Turkey’s ties with the West, especially the US and EU.

Turkey has an interest in economic and security cooperation with Iran, and the two countries have a common interest in keeping their borders secure against any perceived Kurdish threats. Turkey may also find in Iran a means of evading Western pressures and also a way to put pressure on the West, especially as a result of its growing disagreement with the US following the latter’s refusal to extradite Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen, held by Turkey to be responsible for the coup.

The EU has also failed to provide compensation for Syrian refugees on Turkish territory, and it is refusing to forgo visas for Turks visiting the EU.

Iran’s gravitation towards Turkey is a way of resisting regional pressures. The rapprochement between Turkey and the Iranian regime undermines the ability of the Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia to confront Iranian policies in the region, though it does not undermine the basis of the alliance.

Iran’s aligning itself with Turkey also strengthens it vis-à-vis the West, which has still not moved to lift many international sanctions on the Iranian economy. This is especially true for the US, which continues to obstruct the flow of foreign investment into Iran with new sanctions and restrictions on dollar transactions in the Iranian banking system.

The recent failed coup attempt in Turkey has precipitated Turkish foreign policy’s turn to new allies. Erdogan has realised the magnitude of his disputes with the EU over his repressive practices at home, and this, combined with renewed talk of capital sentences for the coup plotters, has postponed Turkey’s dream of joining the EU. The Turkish leadership is also convinced that the US was involved in the coup attempt as a way of getting rid of Erdogan.

Turkish-Russian relations were severely strained after Turkey shot down a Russian Sukhoi 24 fighter on the Syrian border, claiming it had entered Turkish airspace though the Russian Defence Ministry insisted the aircraft was in Syrian airspace. The incident sparked recriminations from both sides, though after the coup attempt Erdogan went to Russia in an attempt to break the ice.

The new reality on the ground in Syria after the battle of Aleppo effectively ended Turkey’s hope of extending its influence in northern Syria through loyal militias. Russia has tightened its grip on the Syrian-Turkish border as a result of its military presence in Syria and dried up the wellsprings of Turkish aid for militias inside Syria.

All this has given rise to an emerging alliance between Russia, Turkey, and Iran with Syria at its heart. Iran and Russia, both backers of the regime, have a common interest in Syria, while Turkey has been attempting to reach an accommodation with them on its stance towards the Syrian regime.

All three parties agree on the need to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and reject a federal option that could threaten both Turkey and Iran. If the Syrian Kurds won an independent federal region in Syria as they have in Iraqi Kurdistan, this would inevitably inspire similar aspirations by the Kurds in Turkey and open the door to more unrest in Iran led by the Iranian Kurds.

The outlines of this new alliance became clearer after Erdogan’s recent visit to Moscow and several visits on the foreign minister level between Ankara and Tehran. Turkey modulated its discourse on the crisis in Syria and abandoned its demands for the unconditional ouster of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Shifting the country’s stance on the transitional period in Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Binali Yildirim said that “Turkey will be more active on the Syria issue in the coming six months as a regional player. This means not allowing Syria to be divided on an ethnic basis.” He said that Al-Assad was a “major player” in the Syrian conflict and should be included in the discussions.

Given the developments in Turkey and abroad, Turkish foreign policy appears to be undergoing shifts to preserve Ergodan’s interests. However, the options are limited, since while Turkey has been trying to reach agreement with the EU and US on its repressive post-coup measures the country’s human rights record is at the heart of EU concerns.

Turkey could try to deal with Western pressure by forging an alliance with Russia and Iran despite its historical disagreements with Russia and its conflicting interests with Tehran. It seems that it has chosen the latter option at this stage, turning its back on its alliance with Saudi Arabia against Iranian policies in the region and especially in Syria and Yemen.

This has been illustrated by Iran’s successful neutralisation of Turkey on the Yemeni issue and Ankara’s new-found flexibility on the Syrian crisis and on talking with Al-Assad.

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