The Iran-Turkey relationship sits on numerous thematic fault lines: the two modern states descend from the Persian and Ottoman empires, which warred frequently through the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries; Turkey is a Sunni majority country, while Iran has a Shia majority; Turkey is nominally secular, while Iran is Islamist; Turkey belongs to NATO, while the Islamic Republic cherishes its antipathy toward the West; Turkey is an economic powerhouse with globally competitive companies, while Iran’s economy steadily declines. Yet there are also crucial commonalities. Both countries have substantial Kurdish populations, and both are non-Arab powers that aspire to influence the Greater Middle East. Yet throughout recent history, both parties have curbed their rivalry in view of vital economic considerations, with Turkey taking the diplomatic lead.
A History of Threat Perception
Historic enmity remains a subtle backdrop to relations between modern Turkey and Iran. “The Ottoman-Persian relationship was one of distinct rivalry and threat-perception,” says Elliot Hentov, author of Asymmetry of Interest: Turkish-Iranian Relations Since 1979. From the Iranian perspective, the Ottomans were a big Middle Eastern player. “They had control of the holy sites not just at Mecca and Medina, but also of the Shia sites at Najaf and Karbala in Iraq. For the Persians, who had defined themselves as a Shia Islamic empire, the Ottomans were the Evil Empire.” This legacy of conflict, he says, is still felt today and may weigh upon sectarian-tinted disagreements such as the civil war in Syria.
In the 20th century, Turkey influenced Iranian affairs in two ways that Iran’s Khomeinist rulers likely see as traumatic. In the 1920s and 30s, writes the former British official and historian Michael Axworthy in A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, Turkey offered a powerful model to Iran’s early modernizers, including Reza Khan, the founder of the Pahlavi monarchy, who sought to transform Iran along lines set out by Turkey’s secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Like Ataturk, Reza Shah banned the veil for women, and sought to instill a contemporary nationalism enshrined in national language by purging Arabic and other non-Persian words from use.
Reza Khan (right), the father of Muhammad Reza, drew ideas of secular nationalism from Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (left).
In November 1964 Reza Shah’s heir and successor, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, exiled Ruhollah Khomeini to Turkey, where he stayed for nearly a year—first in Ankara and then in the village of Bursa—under the supervision of the Shah’s secret police. As revolution escalated in Iran in 1978, Khomeini said in an interview from Paris, “Demands for an Islamic state are now being heard in Turkey […] partly as a result of what is happening in Iran.” He also named Turkey as one of a number of Muslim countries bound to oppose his movement in Iran because, he implied, their leaders were beholden to great powers, and afraid for their own rule.
At the time of the revolution, says Aaron Stein of the London-based defense think tank, the Royal United Services Institute, Turkey’s relations with Iran had cooled over a dispute about oil prices and trade tariffs. On the other hand, Stein says, the Shah was part of CENTO. [His] pro-American government represented a bulwark against the Soviet Union. Ankara, he says, feared that Iran was vulnerable to Soviet invasion through Soviet Azerbaijan, and wanted the Shah to be powerful.
Turkey responded to the Iranian Revolution with both alarm and pragmatism, says Henri J. Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University, and a former U.S. State Department official. Ankara quickly recognized the new regime in Iran, but the reverberations of revolution reached Turkey. “In 1980 there was a military coup in Turkey,” Barkey says, “and in some ways, events in Iran did affect the perceptions of the officers who carried out the coup.”
Turkey’s swift, pragmatic response to events in Tehran was unique among NATO members, Hentov says, since Turkey managed to defuse Iranian suspicions or animosity. The Turkish ambassador was the first foreign ambassador that Khomeini met after the revolution. Despite Iran’s ideological hostility towards the West, and Iranian perception of Turkey as a NATO bridgehead, “Turkey’s leaders at the time reached out, and [Turkey] was very proactive,” managing to avoid what otherwise would have been strong hostility.
Turkish Neutrality, Wartime Trade
In the Iran-Iraq War Turkey remained neutral, and it was the wartime period that cemented new economic relations between the two countries. Turkey, Stein says, was the only outlet for Iranian oil and gas during the war. “Circumstances forced the two sides to cooperate on these issues,” he says. “Turkey being a net oil importer, Iran being an exporter, they were a perfect fit.” As the only country that bordered both belligerents, Barkey says, Turkey prospered. With war hindering trade through the Persian Gulf, both Iran and Iraq came to depend upon Turkish goods. “It actually saved Turkey in many ways,” Barkey says, “because Turkey was going through a major economic crisis at the time. New export markets helped [it].”
Turkey, Stein says, exploited Iran’s misfortunes during that period, using the fact that Iran was embargoed by the United States to force Iran into making concessions, especially when it ran low on cash toward the middle of the war. Turkey set up a barter arrangement whereby it paid for Iranian energy supplies with Turkish white goods priced at European prices. The late 1980s, he says, was the one time in Turkish-Iranian history that the trade balance actually equaled out.
The Kurdish Factor
Affairs in Kurdistan have tended both to reflect and to affect the health of the broader relationship between Turkey and Iran, with both countries historically supporting different groups in the region. “There is a regional competition going on between Turkey and Iran over the trajectory of Kurdish regions,” says Fadi Hakura of the London think tank Chatham House. Turkey, he says, has traditionally been suspicious of alleged ties between Iran and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that opposed Turkish dominance. Those ties, he says, seemed to blossom in the 1990s when the PKK was based in Syria, before its expulsion in 1999. “We know about the strong ties between Syria and Iran,” Hakura says. “There were allegations made by Turkey that Iran was providing assistance to the PKK [but] now those allegations are made informally rather than at an official level.”
In the late 1990s Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan focused on improving ties with Muslim neighbors including Iran, Stein says, and improvements in Turkish-Iranian ties, such as the signing of a National Gas Agreement with Iran, coincided with Turkish success on the Kurdish front. “The opening to Iran was really facilitated in 1999 when [PKK leader] Abdullah Ocalan was captured,” Stein says. Having decapitated the PKK leadership, Turkey felt freer to engage Iran and Syria, both of which it had accused of supporting the PKK.
Turkey remains suspicious of an apparent undeclared ceasefire in recent years between the Iranian government and PJAK, the Iranian arm of the PKK, with which Iran has been in conflict since 2004, according to Hakura. “But it’s fair to say that the PKK is a greater danger to Turkish national security interests than PJAK is to Iranian security interests simply because the Kurds in Iran number 5 to 7 million, whereas Turkey has around 18 million,” he says.
Hakura also points to Turkish-Iranian disagreements concerning Kurds in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, he says, Iran perceives Turkey as supporting the Syrian Kurdish movement, which Iran opposes. In Iraq’s Kurdish north, Turkey has facilitated the shipment of oil to its Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, a move Iran completely opposes.
The AKP, the Green Movement, and the Arab Spring
In 2002 Turkey elected the socially conservative, Islamist-leaning AKP, or Justice and Development Party. “The Iranian perception has always been—and correctly—that the AKP is not necessarily friendly to the West,” says Barkey. The AKP has supported a more open policy towards Iran, notably drafting along with Brazil an Iranian nuclear fuel swap proposal in 2010. Despite friction over NATO radar installations in Turkey, and rivalry for the popular approval of Arabs following Turkish quarrels with Israel, Barkey says, AKP leadership in Turkey suits Iran better than any more western-oriented government would.
Yet despite its apparent ambivalence about the West, AKP has been the party most associated with Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, a move that, if successful, would bring Europe to Iran’s border.
“Turkey’s EU accession looked serious for two or three years,” Hentov says. “There was a brief period when the Iranians took it seriously, but I don’t think [they arrived at] a clear strategic view of what that would mean.” Hentov says that Turkey’s current role as a visa-free “human outlet,” for Iranians, both as a holiday destination and as a place to experience a more laissez-faire Islamic society, is an important aspect of the relationship, although its consequences are hard to quantify.
While some Iranians may see Turkey as a refuge from social and political pressures at home, Turkey has tended to back the status quo in Iran, especially during the Green Movement protests that followed Iran’s 2009 election. “They were the first to congratulate [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad on his election,” Stein says. Turkey was keen to avoid regional instability that would hurt its economic model and lead to higher oil prices. Despite Turkey’s democratic narrative, Barkey says, its view of the Green Movement was one of suspicion. “I think their reaction was, ‘This is western-inspired, western oriented,’ and that this was designed to undermine the [Iranian] regime.”
Turkey’s reaction to the Arab Spring was different. Although it vacillated over Western intervention Libya, Barkey says, its antipathy toward Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak led it to embrace the movement. “The most important regime that was targeted by the Arab Spring was Egypt, a regime that they did not like, that was anti-Muslim Brotherhood, that had made its peace with Israel,” Barkey says. According to Stein, the Arab Spring marked a Turkish policy change. “Pre-Arab Spring, they were fine with cozying up to dictators. After the Arab Spring, they came to the conclusion that the tide was turning on what they implied [were] Western-backed, non-democratic, Camp David order-inspired leaders [who] were implementing policies to appease the West.”
Economic Interests First
A pumping station on the Iran-Turkey gas pipeline
Turkey’s relaxed, even gently protective attitude to Iran’s nuclear program reflects its reluctance to accede to western anxieties and derives also from its sense of security within NATO.
Turkey, Stein says, believes strongly in Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which enshrines the “inalienable right” of parties to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and sees demands for Iran to give up enrichment as a non-starter. “NATO is the backbone of their security, no matter how problematic things get with the West,” Stein says. “They host 70 nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Force Base. They believe strongly in nuclear deterrence, and they believe the Iranians can be deterred.”
But as a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, he says, Turkey accepts restrictions on the export of uranium enrichment and reprocessing equipment that now affect Iran, and it encourages Iran to resolve outstanding questions about its program.
The prospect of a nuclear deal between Iran and the West appeals to Turkey, Barkey says, because it would open Iran economically, but Turkey also realizes that a deal would afford Iran a freer hand in the region. Although Turkey hasn’t felt threatened by Iran’s nuclear program, he says, the relationship is more complex than it used to be, “because events in Syria have woken them up to Iran’s hegemonic intentions.”
Relations grew tense over Syria following the Arab Spring. “It was really bad for a while,” Stein says. “That was when Turkey was living in the ‘Assad’s going to fall in six months’ bubble.” Turkey, he says, once thought it was poised to “win” the new Syria, but as the war has worn on, it has sought to practically re-engage Iran and isolate the conflict from broader relations. Turkey’s leaders, he says, wanted Hassan Rouhani to win the 2013 election in Iran, and have made statements about working with Iran to limit regional sectarianism.
The extent to which both sides have contained their dispute over Syria is remarkable, and is underpinned by vital economic and infrastructure ties. For both countries, Barkey says, the fall or survival of Assad is probably the most important foreign policy concern they face, and they completely disagree on desired outcomes. But, he says, “They have learnt to agree to disagree. The two sides have enormous, structured economic relations, most importantly gas exports. Turks need gas, and the Iranians need to ship the gas. Pipelines are not something you pick up and move somewhere else overnight.” Observing recent diplomatic exchanges between the two countries, he says, “This is not the behavior of two countries that are clashing.”
Hakura says that despite a history of trade disputes, and Iran’s refusal to allow a Turkish footprint on what it considers strategic sectors of its economy (such as telecommunications and its oil and gas industries), the relationship remains centered on energy and trade. Turkey, moreover, has proved useful to a heavily sanctioned Iran. “Turkey allegedly played a critical role in [allowing] gold sales to Tehran via Turkey as a way to circumvent western sanctions against Iran. That has made Washington quite upset with alleged Turkish complicity in allowing Tehran to bypass or circumvent sanctions.” There is a noticeable Iranian presence in Turkey now, he says, as Iran seeks a conduit to engage in trade with the outside world.
Indeed, Turkey’s relative economic ascent is the aspect of the relationship that has changed most since 1979—a fact that may cause Iranians to reflect uneasily on the two countries’ historical trajectories. “Iran is not comforted by the fact that Turkey’s economic power—and its political power—has risen,” Hentov says. “Iran was basically twice as wealthy as Turkey was when the [Iranian] revolution happened, and now it’s about half,” he says. “On the other hand, they are benefitting from Turkey’s success.”