Tehran-Ankara · Challenges of Iranian Turmoil

Gülden Ayman, Doctor in International Relations, Associate Professor at Marmara University (Istanbul, Turkey)

July 7, 2009 • Analysis •

Gülden Ayman is Doctor in International Relations, Associate Professor at Marmara University (Istanbul, Turkey). Among other books, she published A Strategic Analysis of Turkey’s Relations with her Neighbors with a special Emphasis given to EU Neighborhood Policy (Istanboul, Tusiad, 2007) and The Main Parameters to Cope with Iraqi Imbroglio-Turkish Perspective (Istanboul, Bigart, 2008).

Although the unfolding events in Iran are extremely significant for Turkey, Ankara did not make any critical comment with regard to the serious allegations of electoral fraud in Iran that resulted with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection, defeating a relatively moderate presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Furthermore Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul were among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Ahmadinejad, calling him a few days after his disputed landslide victory.

The official Turkish stance on the outcome of Iran’s controversial elections, that “this issue should be left to Iranians, and Turkey is ready to work with whoever takes office in this friendly neighbor” has been stated by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as follows: “Iran is of utmost importance to us. It is one of our most important neighbors with which we share common history. We believe that Iran will solve its problems within itself, in the framework of healthy consultation and one-on-one negotiations. Iran’s stability is vital for the entire region’s stability. Turkey will respect all decisions made in this respect” (1).

This finely tuned policy aimed at maintaining sensitive ties with Iran could be interpreted as a reflection of Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy (2). In fact, Ankara has dramatically improved its relations with Tehran in recent years. Since 2000, ties have been on the mend, boosted by a bilateral trade volume surpassing a record $11 billion.

Turkey’s determination to preserve her good relations with Iran, however, is not totally a new phenomenon. It has been a reflection of structural factors as well as Turkey’s status-quo- oriented foreign policy. A lack of territorial disagreements, along with symmetry of power,, has always been the main source of the stability characterizing Turkish-Iranian relations: The common border, agreed in the Kasr-ı Şirin Treaty, has remained unchallenged since 1639 when it was signed. Besides, the same kind of power status enjoyed by these neighboring countries increase both the likelihood of compromise and durable agreements.

On the other hand, symmetry of power, the more or less matching capabilities on the part of both actors to project influence in the region, provides a background conducive to competition between the two nations. How Iran and Turkey compete is very much affected by the nature of their regimes and the regional policies of international actors. Indeed, during the rule of the Shah, Iran was as secular a country as Turkey. Yet, it was not a democracy either before or after the Islamic Revolution, which replaced the monarchy with a theocratic dictatorship of the Shiite religious leaders, albeit with an elected government.

Though the absence of territorial conflicts together with the symmetrical power relations decreases the probability of war between Turkey and Iran, relations between the two neighboring countries were not free from tensions. Turkey and Iran found themselves in the opposite camps after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Two sources of friction in Turkish-Iranian relations emerged. The first was Iran’s efforts to export its regime and its support for religious/fundamentalist terrorism, while the second was its assistance to Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) terrorists, which resulted in a crisis prone atmosphere between the two countries. Following Mohammed Hatemi’s assumption of the presidency in Iran in 1997, Tehran began to adopt a more delicate approach on the matter of exporting the revolution and its policy of playing the PKK card to weaken Turkey started to change after the war in Iraq.

In Turkey, Washington’s inability to act against PKK not only fomented anti-Americanism(3), it also created a more favorable climate for the improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations. Turkey and Iran first signed a memorandum of understanding on security cooperation on July 29, 2004. During the 11th round of Turkey-Iran High Security Commission meetings (4) in the Iranian capital Tehran in February 2006, the two countries agreed to cooperate for “the region to become a peaceful land which is purified of all kinds of terror” (5). A new memorandum of understanding which foresaw a broadening and deepening of security cooperation between the two countries reinforced Turkish-Iranian agreement on April 17, 2008. On 6 June 2008, General Ilker Basbug, the Commander of the Turkish Land Forces, confirmed that Turkey and Iran were sharing intelligence and coordinating military operations against the PKK and its Iranian affiliate, PJAK (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan) (6).

Turkish-Iranian cooperation was not limited to the security field. Another striking development was observed in the energy area. On the 14th of July 2007, Iranian Petroleum Minister Seyyed Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh and Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Güler signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) under which Iranian and Turkmen gas would be exported to Europe via Turkey. Also agreed in the MoU was the development, on a buyback basis, of part of the giant South Pars natural gas field in the Persian Gulf (7). In August 2007, Ankara and Tehran consolidated their energy cooperation by signing a Memorandum of Understanding to build three power stations in Iran using natural gas to generate 6,000 megawatts of energy (8). Moreover, during Ahmadinejad’s visit to Turkey in August 2008, the two countries’ presidents signed five memoranda of understanding on security cooperation, combating organized crime, economic cooperation, and education.

It is also interesting to note that this ‘official visit’ transformed into a ‘working visit’ due to Ahmedinejad’s refusal to visit Anitkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which is an essential part of the itinerary for a visit by any head of state. While this shows on the one hand that the issue of the conflicting natures of the regime  is far from over, it is also an indication, on the other, of how the characteristics of the AKP-led government in Turkey made it possible to handle regime differences between the two countries in an entirely new fashion.

As for the issue of developing nuclear capability,  the most critical  between the US and Iran, Ankara supports Iran’s right to possess nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, although it also warns that this should occur in compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Turkey believes that it would not only suffer because of a US decision to use force against Iran (9),it will also be affected significantly if harsher sanctions on Iran would be imposed. When we assess Turkey’s position with regard to the nuclear crisis involving Iran, we see that the principle of non- involvement constitutes the basic tenet of that position (10). Non-involvement, meaning not siding with either of the parties in the conflict, has basically two components: First is reminding Tehran that it must allow the IAEA to inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities and suspend enrichment activities, and second, to avoid any commitment to support American forces, in case US decides to launch an air attack on Iran as it was clarified by former Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who said “Turkey would not allow any kind of armed attack over Turkish soil on one of her neighbors” (11). Secondly, Turkey wants to move with the international community on this issue rather than taking an independent line. It should also be noted that the EU accession process has provided Turkey with certain advantages in regards to the crisis surrounding Iran’s nuclear intentions. It not only augmented Turkey’s capability to act more independently from the USA, but also provided the opportunity to facilitate a dialogue between the EU and Iran. Thirdly, Turkey endorses the idea to establish an effectively verifiable zone, free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, calls on all the Middle East states to terminate the efforts for developing such weapons and their delivery means and, become party to the non-proliferation regimes and treaties as soon as possible (12). Lastly, in order to preserve the military balance with Iran, Turkey tries to strengthen its air power capabilities (13).

According to Western news media, Iran’s nuclear program may motivate Turkey to obtain nuclear weapons as well. In fact, Ankara’s current agenda includes moves for Turkey to become a civilian nuclear power through building nuclear power stations. Turkey decided to build three nuclear plants with a total capacity of about 5,000 megawatts in hopes of preventing a possible energy shortage and reducing dependence on external supplies of energy raw material. The first nuclear power plant at Akkuyu in the southern province of Mersin is expected to become operational in 2013 or 2014 (14). Turkish policy, however, is not aimed at matching nuclear capabilities of Iran. It is, nevertheless, a fact that the nuclear crisis involving Iran did offer the AKP government a much more favorable environment than before to take bold initiatives towards acquisition of nuclear power stations.

Despite the fact that Turkey extends its cooperation to Iranand the improvement of Iranian nuclear capabilities is not considered as a ‘direct threat’ to Turkey’s security, there are several policy differences in both countries’ current approaches to the Middle East and Iraq. As President Abdullah Gul once stressed “Undoubtedly Turkey differs from Iran on many issues…” (15).

In this context, Iran’s growing influence in the region, and particularly in Iraq, is often regarded as an unpleasant development for Turkey. The following remarks by Iranian President Ahmadinejad reflect how Iran is eager to have an increasing influence on its neighbor’s political scene: “The political power of the occupiers is collapsing rapidly. Soon, we will see a huge power vacuum in the region. Of course, we are prepared to fill the gap, with the help of neighbors and regional friends like Saudi Arabia, and with the help of the Iraqi nation”(16).

Undoubtedly, Tehran aspires to be recognized as a respected country in dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq’s new political elite has established close ties with the Iranian regime and Iran’s influence in Iraq is now greater than it has been for decades. Not only is Iraq’s leading religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a native of Iran, but Tehran also enjoys close ties to the Iraqi Shiite leadership, many of whom -including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki- were exiled to Iran during the Saddam era. Some of these leading figures even fought in Iranian-armed military units against Iraqi forces during the long, bloody Iran-Iraq War (17).

In the event of a major civil conflict in Iraq, the perceived ideal outcome for Iran, -a Shiite-dominated regime- looks quite doubtful since a civil war on a Sunni-Shiite axis would draw Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia into supporting the minority Sunni population and would lead to strong diplomatic, economic, andpossibly military countermeasures from the other regional powers, as well as from the United States. Though Iran may desire to see the end of civil war and chaos in Iraq, unlike Turkey, it condones instability as part of its bargaining strategy. It is a calculated risk for Iran; in case the regime would face direct mili­tary confrontation from the United States; Iran’s leaders would like to use such environment to their advantage.

Turkey’s new Iraq policy, which started to become visible beginning with 2006, satisfied Ankara’s quest to strengthen its diplomatic and economic influence in Iraq without endangering its relations with Iran. While continuing to integrate Turkmens and Sunni Arabs into the political processes, Turkey launched a more assertive policy which allowed her to establish dialogue with all the religious and ethnic groups in Iraq. The visit to Turkey by Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq’s radical Shiite cleric, was realized in such a context. The decision to open Turkish Consulates both in Mousul and Basra was also taken in line with this new approach. More importantly, Turkey, having earlier refrained from all acts that could be either seen as concessions or de-facto recognition of the Kurdish leadership, also started to engage in direct negotiations with Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq.

So far, Turkey’s positive attitude towards Iran has been a reflection of AKP’s priorities as well as an outcome of realistic considerations and strategic calculations. In this regard, it seems possible to argue that there has been a ‘tacit understanding’ on the importance of Iran on the part of both secular and conservative political forces in Turkey, albeit based on different rationales; and the War in Iraq accelerated this convergence of views. At this point, it is not surprising to see Turkish political observers from both nationalist and religious circles associating post-election protests in Iran with revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics and accusing the ‘dark forces’ of the West of being behind the protests with a view to toppling the regime in Tehran (18).

Turkey desires to ‘solely observe’ what is happening in its neighbor Iran. According to Prime Turkish Minister Erdogan it is “because in the final analysis every country has its own values and mechanisms” (19). The crisis that aroused following the presidential elections in Iran appears to have been concluded with the suppression of the reformist and moderate conservative front headed by Mir Hossein Mousavi. If the turmoil in Iran, which reinserted the debate on the nature of the regime to Turkish political agenda, continues to grow, however, the divergent views among the Turkish elite may become more evident in the long run.

Notes •

(1) “Iran’ın istikrarı bölge için önemli (Iran’s stability is important for the region), Hurriyet, 23 June 2009, online at www.hurriyet.com.tr/dunya/11923048.asp.

(2) For a general background of this concept, see, Ahmet Davutoglu, Stratejik Derinlik, (Strategic Depth) Küre Yayınları, 2006.

(3) 2007 Transatlantic Trends poll showed only three percent of the Turks approved of President Bush’s handling of international policies and 83% disapproved. See, Transatlantic Trends, Key Findings 2007, online at www.transatlantictrends.org/trends/doc/.

(4) The commission was first established in 1988 but for the first decade of its existence was essentially waning.

(5) “Iran and Turkey to discuss PKK, PJAK”, Turkish Daily News, 14 April 2008.

(6) For more information tight connection between PKK and PJAK see James Brandon, “Iran’s Kurdish Threat PJAK, Jamestown Foundation, online at www.jamestown.org/terrorism/news/uploads/TM_004_012.pdf.

(7) According to the treaty, Turkey will receive 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Iran, which could be used both for satisfying domestic needs and for reselling to European countries. In addition, Turkey will be able to obtain Turkmen gas coming through Iranian territory.

(8) Turkey and Iran agree to build three power plants”, Turkish Daily News, 21 August 2007. Online at http://www.turkishdailynews.com.tr/article.php?enewsid=81428.

(9)  According to Paul Rogers, a US attack aimed at Iran’s nuclear infrastructure may turn into a prolonged armed conflict which could draw in Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and the Gulf countries aside from engaging the US and Iran. See Paul Rogers, Iran: Consequences of War, Oxford Research Group, Briefing PaperFebruary 2006.

(10) When Iran’s nuclear activities were reviewed during the Turkish National Security Council meeting on 23 February 2006, it was decided that Turkey should continue its balanced policy towards the US and Iran. See, “At MGK the Issue was Iran”, Milliyet, 24 February 2006: 16.

(11) It is possible to assume that Gul through this statement was also trying to pre-empt possible US demands to use Turkish airspace or territory in a move against Iran. See, “We Wouldn’t Let Others Attack Our Neighbor from Our Land”, Milliyet, 10 February 2006: 27.

(12) Turkey’s self confidence related to this issue derives from the fact that she adheres to all major international treaties, arrangements and regimes regarding non-proliferation of those weapons and their delivery means, and actively participates and supports all efforts pertaining to non-proliferation in the NATO. Turkey does not possess WMD and does not intend to have them in the future.

(13) Turkey’s Undersecretary for Defense IndustriesMurat Bayar revealed that Turkey plans to buy eight missile defense systems from abroad to protect her against possible missile attacks that are to be deployed in and around Ankara and Istanbul by 2010.It is stated that the Turkish Air Force recommends the US made Patriot, US-Israel made Arrow-2 and Russian made S-300, online at http://www.tsk.mil.tr/eng/diger_konular/kitleimhasilahlari.htmmissiles , which were also used during the first Gulf War. “A Missile Shield against Iran”, Hurriyet, 5 January 2006:15.

(14) An earlier plan was dropped in July 2000 amid financial difficulties and protests from environmentalists in Turkey. Opponents raised safety concerns, arguing that the proposed site is only 25 kilometers (15 miles) from a seismic fault line. Energy Minister Hilmi Guler says that said preparatory work was also underway to build a second reactor in northern Turkey, near the Black Sea city of Sinop. Although the government the government argues that it prefers the private sector to undertake the Project, construction by the public sector is not a distant possibility. See, “Turkey to build first nuclear plant on Mediterranean coast: minister”, Hurriyet, 22 November 2008.

(15) “Gul denies US pressure in energy deal with Iran”, Reuters Tehran, August 2008.

(16) “Ahmedinejad offers to fill power vacuum in Iraq” online atwww.usatoday.com/news/world/2007-08-28-iran-nuclear_N.htm – 52k.

(17) Geoffrey Kemp, Iran and Iraq: The Shia Connection, Soft Power, and the Nuclear Factor, United States Institute of Peace, Special Report, November 2005.

(18) Yeni Cag, 18 June 2009; Yeni Safak, 17 June 2009.

(19) “PM voices confidence in Iran to solve conflict”, Today’s Zaman, 29 June 2009.