Turkish-Iranian Competition in the Middle East

Turkish-Iranian Competition in the Middle East

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor

By: Orhan Gafarli

The Jamestown Foundation

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a formal visit to Iran on April 7, 2015. The trip was designed to try to repair bilateral relations after their severe breakdown linked to the crisis in Yemen. Indeed, the conservative wing of the ruling establishment in Tehran, including the head of Iran’s Parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Huseyn Nakavi, demanded that Erdogan’s Iran visit should be delayed (BBC–Turkish service, April 7). Some even warned the government that if Erdogan did not cancel the visit, the issue would be brought before Iran’s Guardian Council. Despite this negative pressure, the Turkish president did end up traveling to Tehran to clarify Ankara’s position (Radikal, April 7).

Four significant issues have contributed to this nadir in Turkish-Iranian relations: Iraq, Syria, Yemen and energy. Regarding Syria, the only area of agreement between Ankara and Tehran is their firm opposition to the Islamic State. However, Iran has continued to support the beleaguered Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey backs the united opposition. On Iraq, Turkey still sees Iran acting as a manipulator in bilateral Ankara-Baghdad relations. Although from time to time Tehran sends positive messages on this issue, in reality, these are tactical games on Iran’s part (Internet Haber, March 4). In recent months, as the war in Yemen continued to spiral out of control, Turkey has sided with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates and supported their international military action backing the embattled Yemeni regime. Iran, on the other hand, stands behind the Houthi rebels who are fighting on the other side of this conflict.

Over the past fifteen years, these regional issues have become increasingly contentious for Ankara and Tehran. The reason, as many experts contend, is related to the relative power of Iran in the region. For one thing, its power and ability to influence other regional actors has grown after the Arab Spring. Moreover, Iran has been strengthening regional Shia groups and building a crescent of influence in the Middle East. In addition, some have argued that Iran now feels more confident after reaching a framework agreement with the 5+1 Western countries on its nuclear program (Internet Haber, March 4; Radikal, March 18).

Another key point of contention between Turkey and Iran has become the issue of energy. “Turkey, as a country, is the largest consumer of [natural] gas from Iran, and yet it pays the highest price,” President Erdogan declared while in Tehran (BBC–Turkish service, April 7). Turkey expects a possible discount on the gas volumes it already imports from Iran; but Tehran has, so far, ignored these pleas. Speaking to journalists, on April 14, Iranian Fuel Minister Bijen Namdar Zengene said that Tehran’s proposal of lowering the gas purchase in exchange for Turkey buying double the volumes was rejected by Ankara. Annually, Turkey buys 10 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas from Iran. Sources from the Turkish Ministry of Energy confirm that Iran proposed selling Turkey another 10 bcm of gas at a gradually decreasing price scheme, but without changing the price it charges Ankara for the first 10 bcm. Turkish Foreign ministry sources declared that this proposal was not acceptable to authorities in Ankara (Hurriyet, April 17).

In addition to the subject of energy sales, the website Iran.ru, controlled by the Iranian embassy to Moscow, earlier this year published an article criticizing Turkey’s developing role as a regional gas hub. “Turkey, as an ‘Energy Hub’ country, [will be] dangerous for Iran,” the article asserts, adding, “and Iran does not understand why Russia has been helping Turkey in this process. Russia supports Iran via strategic cooperation [but] assists Ankara on the energy issue—which is not preferable for these nations [Russia and Iran]. Russia must defend Iran’s interests” (Iran.ru, January 23).

Relations between Russia, Turkey and Iran are being influenced by a complicated set of cross-cutting and often contradictory interests. Ankara, expecting that its warm relations with Russia would bolster Turkey’s international role, has felt uncomfortable with growing Iranian strength in the Middle East as a result of improving relations between Tehran and the West (Iran.ru, February 27). For one thing, Turkey is concerned about the fact that Iran has not taken any firm action on helping to resolve the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, if the economic sanctions on Iran are terminated, the Islamic Republic could grow to become the preeminent power in the region. That is why Ankara is assisting Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in their campaign over Yemen (Hurriyet, April 24). This support clearly has a tactical dimension, particularly against the background of Turkey’s own disagreements with Saudi Arabia on Yemen. Moreover, relations between Ankara and Cairo have been virtually frozen after Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in Egypt two years ago (Turkiye, April 25).

Meanwhile, Turkish media has been hinting that relations with Israel might again come up for debate following Turkey’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for June 7. The geopolitical struggles in the Middle East are encouraging Turkey and Israel to rebuild a new, cordial relationship. But some experts infer that, in exchange for re-normalizing relations, Turkey will expect help from Israel on Syria. Without any dedicated alliances in the Middle East, Turkey is pursuing a series of tactical policy steps wherever it can find areas of common interest with other regional players. In the absence of any other allies in the Middle East, Turkey has been relying on political support from the United States—a fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member. But the insufficient backing it has received from Washington on the Syria issue has left Ankara feeling uncomfortable (CNN–Turkish service, April 24).

Turkey’s Middle East policy is thus in a current state of flux. But in its quest for new regional partnerships, it is unlikely to seek out either Iran or Russia. Rather, Turkey may be expected to seek closer cooperation with Saudi Arabia or re-build its relations with Israel. Recently, Turkey appears to have swung its attention more toward Saudi Arabia—President Erdogan attended the funeral of Saudi King Abdullah (Today’s Zaman, January 23) and later paid a formal visit to the country in March (Al-Monitor, March 3). These exchanges may herald a coming breakthrough in bilateral Saudi-Turkish relations in the near future. Though Turkey’s ultimate decision between moving closer to Israel or Saudi Arabia will undoubtedly have to wait until after the June 7 elections.

Photo provided in the article by The Jamestown Foundation: Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani, Tehran, April 7 (Source: AFP)

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