Turkey is in a critical position as a consequence of both its proximity to multiple crises and its unique exposure to deteriorating security relationships in both the south and the east. It must keep regional conflicts from further undermining the country’s internal security. It must also strengthen ties to NATO and EU partners whose demands on Turkey are set to increase, but whose cooperation will be essential to meet proliferating regional security threats. The prevailing atmosphere of mutual suspicion between Ankara and its Western allies suggests that this will not be an easy task. But relations with Turkey are set to become the most critical in NATO.
Turkey and Iran have opposing perspectives on many issues, a historical pattern that emerges from two different worldviews. Though this does not prohibit occasional economic relations, it does limit bilateral relations. While Turks and Iranians have rarely been at war with each other, their friendship is a “cold peace,” as crises regularly make visible. For instance, in March 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a dramatic shift on Iran and publicly criticized that country, outlining Turkey’s general reservations: “Iran means to dominate the region. How can this be allowed? Iran has to abandon this ambition. It should withdraw its forces from Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.” For Erdoğan, “it’s not possible to tolerate” Iran in these areas.
Syria, Iraq, and Yemen today constitute the three major areas of conflict between Iran and Turkey. In each case, both are trying to shape events on the ground according to their opposite interests. Iran’s vision of Syria (or Yemen) is unacceptable to Turkey, as is Turkey’s to Iran. Meanwhile, the Arab Uprisings have destroyed many states, and statehood crises all over the region have fed a bourgeoning sectarianism. State collapse leads to citizenship collapse, and once citizenship collapses, people tend to gravitate either to sectarian or ethnic identities, as we have observed from Libya to Yemen. This has increased the role of transnational sectarian networks, transforming the Middle East into a post-modern zone of sectarian and ethnic wars and shaping the regional states’ foreign policies.
A grand Sunni-Shia axis is in place today in Middle Eastern politics. Though never openly stated, many countries are acting in loose sectarian blocs. How Iran, for instance, reacted to the declaration of the recent Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) Summit in Turkey is typical of this. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi commented that “the general atmosphere governing the OIC under the current circumstances is not really indicative of cooperation among Muslim countries, nor of unity in the Muslim world.” His country felt the final declaration was full of “anti-Iran articles.” More critically, Iran sees Turkey as part of a Saudi-centered Sunni strategy; Turkey’s accord with Saudi Arabia is “proof” of a sectarian alliance. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s hardline anti-Iranian strategies have put Turkey in a difficult situation with regard to Iran. Being part of the “Sunni axis,” it is hardly possible for Turkey to present itself as a neutral power in the region. The sectarian aspect is not simply antagonism between different groups; it is a major component of many major crises from Yemen to Syria raising serious questions regarding who should rule or be the legitimate shareholders in each country.
Iran’s possible reaction to emerging regional blocks is to develop a global strategy. Tehran is aware of the growing tension between Saudi Arabia and the United States, and of the fact that the chaotic situation in many Sunni Arab states has made Iran a relatively stable partner for West. Thus, rather than engage in any direct confrontation, Iran prefers to consolidate a role that might eventually give it increased leverage, adding to its already considerable leverage that might affect the course of events in countries like Azerbaijan, Armenia, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. Iran’s political and sectarian influence in the Gulf countries is equally critical. Typically, Iran’s list of alternate foreign policy strategies is longer than that of any potential contesting state’s (like Turkey’s or Saudi Arabia’s) in any potential bilateral rivalry. For example, there are many thorny issues for Turkey that could easily become the targets of Iranian counter-strategies.
Is Compartmentalization Possible?
Compartmentalization is the process whereby states cooperate in “neutral” areas like trade, and try not to bring their political differences into play. It fails when one state believes that the other has certain agendas that are somehow detrimental to its security. For instance, the Turkish-Russian compartmentalization worked successfully for more than a decade, until Syria-linked effects destroyed it.
Turkey and Iran are both enthusiastic about developing a compartmentalization strategy. Recently, they signed a banking protocol and a Joint Economic Commission protocol in a bid to improve economic and trade ties. Shortly after taking office, Turkey’s new prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, stressed the need for improved relations with Tehran, and the Iranian media responded positively. But can a compartmentalization agenda between Turkey and Iran work over a long enough time to make it worth while? There are five major potential areas of risk that may limit the lifetime of such a strategy:
In Syria, Iran and Turkey are at odds. Each country’s strategy there is destructive for the other.
The Kurdish issue is always a thorny area. Keeping Kurds from becoming legitimate and autonomous actors in regional politics is a major agenda item of Turkish foreign policy. Iran may have different tactical approaches to this issue.
The Turkish-Saudi rapprochement (also including Qatar) is a new dynamic that is alarming for Iran. Tehran will do its best to make this block dysfunctional, since such Saudi-centered alliances are detrimental to its interests in the adjacent “Shia zone,” which includes several Gulf countries like Bahrain.
The recent tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia is a new area of risk for both countries. But unlike Turkey, Iran has contact with both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Iran is well aware of the current catastrophic situation in the Sunni Muslim states. It is clear that Tehran is doing its best to consolidate itself as a regional Muslim power. Unlike during the 2000s, Iran’s current global reputation is not worse than Turkey’s.
Though the five listed areas are distinct, governments will naturally shift from one to another. For instance, if Iran sees its interests threatened in Syria, it may play the Kurdish card. Or, if the Saudi-Turkish alliance keeps harming Iranian interests in Yemen, Iran may increase its support of Russian strategies in Syria, or take sides with Russia in the Azeri-Armenian conflict.
Thus, this compartmentalization strategy requires that both Turkey’s and Iran’s primary strategic interests be insulated against these risks, which is a tough job in the long run. Unlike Iran, Turkey has become a country of quick and unusual foreign policy reactions. The list of regional issues that cause troubles for Ankara is long, and that makes its foreign policy a bit unstable. In contrast, Tehran refrains from abrupt foreign policy reactions, an important difference that might give Iran an advantage. Iranian political elites likely think that they have a historic opportunity (since the revolution) to come back into the international system through legitimate mechanisms. Not wanting to lose this opportunity, Tehran acts calmly, even on critical matters. A deep examination of what Iranians say about regional issues reveals that Iran is not much concerned about Turkey’s capacity to harm its interests. As a result, Iran will be the more tolerant partner in the Turkey-Iran compartmentalization strategy, lest its grand strategy of reviving links with the global Western system be at risk.
Implications for Turkey and the United States
Turkey’s alliance with Saudi Arabia and Qatar will limit its autonomy with regard to Iran. Given its experiences with Russia and China, Ankara should have realized that “double alliance theory” will not prove valid over long periods. International politics does not leave states free to be members of contending blocks.
For the United States, Turkish-Iranian relations have mixed implications. Iran’s need for normalization in the global system may become the anchor that reduces the scope of its possible reactions to regional developments. Thus, unlike how they played out during under the leadership of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Turkish-Iranian relations would proceed within the norms of international society. One the other hand, the “blocks competition,” when Turkey or Iran play key roles, increases the political costs and difficulties of U.S. policies in the region, causing the United States to be unable to form a line of allies on the major Middle Eastern issues. Moreover, in some cases, Turkey and Iran may make the United States face dilemmas reminiscent of those posed by the Turks and Kurds crises.