Under Ebrahim Raisi, Iran and Turkey could enter a new phase of bilateral relations

Iran Source

January 20, 2022 • 10:24 a.m. ET

Under Ebrahim Raisi, Iran and Turkey could enter a new phase of bilateral relations

Hossein Aghaïe Joobani

Relations between Iran and Turkey have been characterized by recurring patterns of friendship and enmity over the past two decades. Despite diverging foreign policy priorities and conflicting interests, the two regional powers have managed to compartmentalize their relationship by dealing with geopolitical and economic issues in isolation from each other. With the ultra-conservative Ebrahim Raisi in power in Iran, this strategy of compartmentalization should continue to determine the future direction of bilateral relations.

On November 15, 2021, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with Raisi and his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in Tehran, where they deliberated on economic relations, concerns over their common border and developments in courses in the region. During a joint press conference with Amir-Abdollahian, the Turkish Foreign Minister spoke of the willingness of the two countries to work on “a roadmap for long-term comprehensive cooperation on Iran’s proposal”.

Two weeks later, on November 29, 2021, the Iranian and Turkish presidents met for the first time on the sidelines of the 15th Economic Cooperation Organization summit held in Turkmenistan. During the meeting, the two countries signed a memorandum on comprehensive improvement of bilateral relations and agreed to convene the seventh meeting of the High-Level Cooperation Council during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s next visit to Tehran.

With Raisi’s rise in Iran, this raised hopes that a new chapter in Iran-Turkey relations could open. This follows the new president’s “Neighbors First” policy, which aims to reduce tensions between Iran and its most immediate neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Meanwhile, President Erdogan is also seen as embarking on a reset as part of his regional “charm offensive” with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

While it appears that Iran and Turkey are reconciling their differences and developing strong ties, the realities that shape the future direction and dynamics of bilateral relations are far more complex.

Turkish-Iranian relations over the years

Broadly speaking, relations between Iran and Turkey over the past two decades can be divided into four main phases. During the first phase (2001-2010), the friendship between Tehran and Ankara grew stronger as a number of developments – such as the US war in Afghanistan, Turkey’s mediating role in the Iran’s nuclear file and the 2010 Mavi Marmara aid flotilla incident – provided the impetus for the duo to visibly align. In the second phase (2011-2015), the patterns of friendly bilateral relations were replaced by a period of intense geopolitical rivalry, mainly due to the Arab uprisings of 2011 and the ensuing Syrian civil war. During the third phase (2016-2017), relations showed signs of improvement following Iran’s opposition to the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, mutual condemnation from the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s passage of a contentious independence referendum in 2017 and the formation of the Astana peace process on Syria. In the fourth phase (2018-present), relations between the two countries have oscillated between cooperation and conflict, mainly due to tensions over Syria, Iraq and the South Caucasus.

Syria remains a bone of contention as the fate of the northwestern province of Idlib is uncertain. Turkish military offensives in the last major rebel stronghold of Idlib since October 2017 have reinforced patterns of competition between Iran and Turkey. Iran-backed militias clashed with Ankara-backed forces in late February and March 2020 in Idlib province. Although the situation in Syria has evolved into a “frozen conflict”, the unstable balance of Idlib has turned the province into a powder keg.

Furthermore, northern Iraq, in particular the disputed district of Sinjar, remains at the center of an immense geopolitical rivalry between external actors, notably between Iran and Turkey. In Sinjar, Iran is using its Shia proxies to bolster its military presence, while Turkey is seeking to squeeze out the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union and Turkey – and Iran-backed militias from the disputed territory. piece.

In the South Caucasus, where the status quo has been changed in favor of Turkey and Azerbaijan due to the second Karabakh war in 2020, Iran and Turkey are competing for a larger economic footprint and geopolitics. As a direct consequence of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020, Iran has increasingly limited geopolitical room for maneuver north of its border, while Turkey has gained a land corridor that connects Azerbaijan in Nakhchivan to the detriment of Iran’s regional interests.

Despite the unstable situation in the three conflict zones mentioned above, the partitioning strategy is still relevant. In other words, the current situation between Tehran and Ankara can be characterized as a form of confrontational cooperation, with economic issues and geopolitical rivalries acting as a guiding principle that prevents the negative spillover of certain disagreements into the areas of bilateral cooperation. .

In the field of economic relations between Iran and Turkey, even if the volume of trade is far from the target of 30 billion dollars – a meager 3.4 billion dollars in 2020 -, there is no Still, a silo strategy has helped the two countries develop a transactional relationship guided not by a lasting strategic partnership, but by short-term pragmatism and realpolitik.

That said, while siloing is likely to regulate Iran-Turkey bilateral relations at least for the foreseeable future, the sustainability and success of this strategy has yet to stand the test of time. In other words, just because Iran and Turkey have managed to act on the basis of the principle of compartmentalising bilateral relations does not mean that the list of disagreements over regional spoils will be short.

The compartmentalization strategy

The success of the compartmentalization strategy will also depend on the outcome of the detente between Iran and Turkey and between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, respectively. Four rounds of talks have been held in Baghdad since April 2021 to defuse tensions that first erupted in January 2016, when Iranian protesters attacked Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad following the execution of a Saudi Shia cleric. In the latest sign of rapprochement between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, Erdogan and Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed met in Ankara on November 29, 2021 and signed several cooperation and investment agreements. Likewise, in another sign of de-escalation of tensions between Tehran and Abu Dhabi, Tahnoun bin Zayed, the national security adviser of the United Arab Emirates, met with senior Iranian officials in Tehran in early December 2021.

Gestures of conciliation between Iran-Turkey and UAE-Saudi Arabia mean the region appears to be witnessing a vertical rapprochement, as Tehran and Ankara’s reset with Gulf Arab states helps to ‘depressurize’ the Middle East, particularly the Persian Gulf region. However, this does not mean that tensions in the Middle East have subsided.

The salience of this argument is that just as Iran and Turkey seek to bury the hatchet with their Gulf Arab neighbors, their regional rivalries are likely to heat up again. This is simply because the potential depressurizing effects of a Tehran-Riyadh detente could lead to further escalation of geopolitical competition between Tehran and Ankara elsewhere in the region.

However, it remains to be seen whether the talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia will lead in the aforementioned direction. Nevertheless, the outcome of Iran’s and Turkey’s negotiations with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia will have important implications for their bilateral relations.

Another important factor that adds an additional layer of complexity to Turkey-Iran relations is the Joe Biden administration’s decision to reduce the US military footprint in the region. Given that the United States has returned to the policy of “offshore balancing” and that the Middle East and North Africa is deprived of a power with order taking capabilities, the likelihood that Turkey and Iran’s further penetration into conflict areas will increase.

While Iran and Turkey may have too many geopolitical differences, both should maintain their compartmentalization strategy so that regionally divergent interests do not irreparably harm the core of bilateral relations.

Hossein Aghaïe Joobani is a PhD candidate at the Department of International Relations, Dokuz Eylül University, Turkey. Follow him on Twitter: @Haghaie.

Further reading

Image: A worker walks past the pumping station on the Iran-Turkey border during the inauguration ceremony of the Iran-Turkey gas pipeline REUTERS/Raheb

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