The “sectarian confrontation” between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif at Davos—“sectarian” because of their respective readings of the Syrian crisis—did not reach the level of Erdoğan’s infamous appearance at the forum five years ago, when the Turkish Prime Minister demanded “one minute” from a moderator to finish his comments addressing Israeli President Shimon Peres, and then promptly walked out.
This week’s “confrontation” took place at a time when Erdoğan was packing his bags in preparation for his latest visit to Iran, where he is meeting with the country’s political and spiritual leaders. In this case, it was imperative that his foreign minister did not allow himself to fall into the trap set by a talk show host who wanted to start a diplomatic clash between the two neighbors, particularly in light of the difficult situation Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) finds itself in these days, both domestically and abroad.
Turkish–Iranian relations have been known throughout history for their fickle nature, improving and deteriorating on the back of countless variables, and always at the mercy of the empires controlling the region and its future. That is until the two countries succeeded in signing the historic Treaty of Zuhab (also known as the Treaty of Kasr-ı Şirinin) in 1639, which in very terms continues to govern relations between the two states today.
Erdoğan’s visit to Tehran this week is, as a result of current circumstances in the region, significantly different from his visit to the Iranian capital two years ago. This will be more than just a photo opportunity, or a visit of introduction and congratulation following the latest presidential elections in Iran which saw Hassan Rouhani elected president, as the two leaders have already met on a number of occasions in recent months.
Following recent developments and the complicated political situation both in Tehran and Ankara, Erdoğan wants to determine whether the current Iranian leadership is willing to protect this relationship or waste decades of coordination and overt and covert cooperation. This is something that provided both the Iranians and the Turks with significant trade, as well as financial and political opportunities.
Tehran and Ankara are keen to preserve the strength of their relationship, but the issues and crises that they are facing from all sides suggest that this may not be possible. Turkish–Iranian relations are facing a difficult test, and this could lead to a serious revision in bilateral relations.
Mutual rebuke has already been exchanged between the two countries over the Syrian conflict, particularly over attendance at the Geneva II peace talks. As for Tehran, it remains committed to the Assad regime in Syria, supporting its rejection of any prior conditions for the ongoing peace negotiations.
These talks will also look at the support some countries—including Turkey—are providing to so-called “terrorist” groups active in Syria. This is something that Iran, for its part, has strongly criticized Ankara for. Turkey however believes that it is the Iranian stance which is prolonging the Syrian conflict, whether we are talking about direct or indirect support for the Assad regime.
Rouhani will no doubt inform Erdoğan that extremism in Syria is the result of foreign intervention and a flawed reading of the situation. He will call for an end to military support for the Syrian rebels, adding that the Damascus government still enjoys domestic and international legitimacy, and that the decision over the future of the country must rest with the Syrian people. Ankara, however, has already criticized both Syrian and Iranian attempts to divert attention away from the situation on the ground by playing up the terrorist threat.
Tehran now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of attempting to play down the thousands of leaked pictures documenting the abuses carried out by the Assad regime, from massacres to torture. These abuses have all been documented and verified, and all that is left is for the international community to take action—through both its judicial and political institutions—is to hold the Assad regime to account.
However, there is a potential sticking point here: namely calling for Assad to be held accountable for these alleged crimes at the same time that the Geneva II talks—which are seeking to secure an end to the Assad regime and place the future of the country in the hands of the Syrian people—remain ongoing.
Tehran finds itself facing a dilemma in this regard. It would be natural for Iran to remind its neighbor that NATO missiles are still in place on their side of the border despite Ankara’s knowledge that the Syrian regime no longer poses a military threat to it, since Assad is not able to provoke the Turks at this stage. Ankara might find it hard to persuade the Iranians that this is part of a joint defense missile shield which goes beyond the Syrian crisis, holding regional security importance for Turkey’s western allies—this could be analyzed and understood in a number of different ways.
There can be no doubt that the Kurdish issue will feature prominently during Erdoğan’s visit to Tehran, particularly after Kurdish parties in northern Syria announced a regional constitution and moved towards establishing self-rule and independent political administration. This could see an autonomous Kurdish region like the one in Iraq being established in Syria. Meanwhile, at Davos, Iraqi Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani affirmed that Syria’s Kurds are being deprived of their natural rights, adding that the KRG would support whatever decisions its Syrian Kurdish brothers made in this regard.
Iran views Ankara as the launch pad for the project to remove Iranian influence from Syria, thereby depriving Tehran of one of its most important strategic cards. This is why the Iranian leadership has reacted so strongly to Turkish attempts to keep Iran out of Geneva II. While the Iranians have responded by affirming that their regional security goes beyond Syria and includes the Lebanese coast.
Turkish authorities have claimed that Iranian espionage cells are operating in Turkish territory, including meetings between Iranian security officers and Turkish youth affiliated to the opposition Workers Party. There has even been talk about the revival of the Turkish [Kurdish] Hezbollah.
Iran has been angered by its not being invited to attend the Geneva II peace talks, along with Turkey’s position on the issue and the Syrian crisis as a whole. Following the nuclear agreement between the West and Tehran, and with many believing the Iranians could finally agree to abandon the Damascus regime in return for their being allowed to protect their influence in a post-Assad Syria, Turkey and Iran may find themselves on a collision course in the near future.