Beirut – Relations between Iran and Turkey are witnessing a new wave of tension as a result of their huge differences over regional issues, mainly Syria. But according to observers, this tension is not expected to result in the eruption of the 13th round of military confrontation between them.
Observers believe that these relations could set a sample on how to prioritize interests over disagreements between the two countries, which differ in almost everything, except their pragmatism. However, the choice of confrontation -such as the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514 – remains due to rising regional tension.
Lebanese expert on Iranian affairs Asaad Haidar says the history of Iranian-Turkish ties has always been marred by disputes and rivalry; this tension emerged with the establishment of the Safavid dynasty and its shift to adopt Shiism through a push by England that sought to weaken both parties.
Historically, the two sides inked many treaties to demarcate their borders. They also acknowledged that Iran was for Shi’ites while the Ottoman Empire was for Sunnis; this sectarian conflict remained with the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the secular Republic of Turkey.
Although both countries have agreed on avoiding confrontation, they differ on many issues linked to their power grip on Central Asia and the Arab World. Yet, the Syrian crisis has been considered an exceptional case, in which Tehran and Ankara differ and agree on certain issues at the same time.
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ruled Turkey, and built warm ties with Iran, led by Reza Shah; both countries inked a Friendship Treaty, which secured friendship, neutrality and peace, and allowed Iran and Turkey to launch mutual military operations against any attempts to stir tension in the two countries.
On 23 January, 1932, they inked an agreement in Tehran on the final border demarcation. They struck an alliance to confront the Soviet threat and stood against communist expansion in the region. The two countries consolidated their alliance with the United States, recognized the State of Israel and built close relations with it. In 1964, they established the Regional Cooperation Council for Development aiming to implement joint economic projects with Pakistan.
Revolution of Khomeini
At the end of the seventies, the Islamic Revolution toppled the Iranian regime and clashed with the Washington-led international coalition. Then, in 1980, Turkey witnessed a military coup led by Kenan Evren, who became the country’s president. But the Iraq-Iran war restored ties between Tehran and Ankara after Iran was compelled to take advantage of Turkey’s border for its imports and exports.
However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent countries in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea area, a new regional conflict between Iran and Turkey emerged.
Areas expanding from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan, which include massive oil and gas wealth, represent geographic and cultural extensions for both countries. At that time, Ankara rushed to ink cultural and economic agreements, followed by the adoption of the Turkish language as an official language in these countries.
Consequently, Iran was deprived from many territories it had lost in its wars with Russia; the Treaty of Gulistan inked in 1828 deprived Iran from all the territories located near Caucasia, including Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Therefore, a huge conflict ignited between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in which Iran backed the Christian Armenia against the Muslim Azerbaijan supported by Turkey.
Iraq and Syria
The invasion of Iraq helped Iran expand its control in the region through its alliances, helping it compensate its losses against Ankara, after it won the conflict over oil pipelines extending from Central Asia to the Caspian Sea.
Tehran considers Syria a strategic pathway to confronting Israel and reaching the coasts of the Mediterranean, while Turkey sees it a commercial, political, and economic doorway to the Arab World. According to political analyst Mohammad Zahid Gul, Iran and Turkey have always maintained brotherly ties but relations worsened because of the sectarian policies adopted by the contemporary Iranian governments, mainly after the support Iran provided to groups in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
Gul sees that Iran has worked on forming a political, military, and sectarian axis in the region, which led to instability. The analyst says that Iran has wrongly interpreted the post-Arab Spring developments and thought it was time to expand its influence by backing Shi’ite political and armed parties in the Middle East amid an American silence regarding the deployment of Iran-backed militias.
Because Iran will never be able to fulfill its goals in controlling the region, Turkey has sought to establish friendly relations. However, if Tehran rejects such ties based on a mutual non-interference agreement, things will definitely get worse, said Gul.
Lucrative exchanges and corruption in millions
Asaad Haidar said that after the establishment of the new Iranian state, there was a likelihood of a conflict due to a clash between the religious aspect of the Iranian revolution and the secularity of Turkey.
But such confrontation never took place. The economy played the biggest role in avoiding a clash because U.S. sanctions over Iran pushed it to maintain economic relations with Turkey, coupled with trade in oil and other commodities using gold as a currency to avoid getting caught in bank procedures, leading to corruption in transactions carried out between the two parties.
However, the Syrian crisis has shed lights on the huge gap between Tehran and Ankara, as the first supported Bashar Al-Assad and the second rejected that he remains in power. Turkey’s recent alignment with Saudi Arabia, its cooperation with Moscow on Syria, and its continuous rejection for Assad to rule Syria led to further escalation by Iran.
Iranian Intervention … and Kurds
Gul believes that tension between Turkey and Iran is the result of Tehran’s interference in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Gulf states to transform them into countries that follow Wilayat al-Faqih. But Haidar asserts that Iran will never get involved in security clashes with Turkey, because of their joint border and common problems with Kurds. Both parties have agreed on not exploiting the Kurdish issue for a future clash and on rejecting the division of Syria. He sees that Iran and Turkey have set red lines and have committed to them, given that they are both keen on protecting their mutual economic interests and trade exchange which has reached USD30 billion.
According to Gul, future ties between the two countries will be based on the good neighborhood policy. However, he criticized Iran’s support for militias targeting Turkish national security.
He states that Iran’s support for the Democratic Union Party in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Iraq, which have targeted national security through bombings, was obvious; Iranian media outlets also insist on offending leaders in the Justice and Development Party in Turkey and underestimate the Turkish role in the region, he adds. However, according to Gul, any change in the Iranian media policy against Turkey would be a sign for an Iranian preference to stick by the close economic ties rather than narrow sectarian interests.