Turkey-Iran relations have transformed substantially during the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Turkey’s relations with Iran became tense in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. They remained so during military rule in Turkey the 1980s and 1990s, except for the brief opening during the Islamist Welfare Party-led coalitional government (June 1996-June 1997). Necmettin Erbakan, the first pro-Islamist Prime Minister of Turkey, chose Iran for his first official foreign visit in August 1996, where he signed a natural gas agreement worth US$23 billion for the next 25 years.[i] A major diplomatic crisis occurred with the ‘Sincan event,’ when the Iranian ambassador to Turkey strongly criticised Israel from the platform of a pro-Palestinian event in Ankara and the military sent 50 tanks in the Sincan district where the event was held and ordered the expulsion of the ambassador.[ii] Iran was identified as a threat in February 1997 military memorandum that paved the way for ousting of the Erbakan government in the so-called ‘postmodern-coup.’[iii]
The mistrust of the civilian political elite on the part of the Kemalist bureaucracy/military elite often led them to present political issues, such as the Islamic tendencies in the Turkish society and political parties and the Kurdish issue as existential security issues. This securitisation also determined relations with Iran and Syria, both accused of supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgency. It was as deterrence against a hostile Iran-Syria axis that Turkey deepened military relations with Israel.
Reorientation of the Turkish Foreign Policy and relations with Iran
The reorientation of Turkish foreign policy towards West Asia and North Africa with the victory of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in the 2002 parliamentary elections was a culmination of changes in Turkish domestic politics and the evolution in the character of the US-Turkey alliance with the end of the Cold War. During the First Gulf War, Turkey had allowed the United States (US) to use its bases for operations in Iraq. But the autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan following the US imposition of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq and the emergence of PKK safe havens there gave rise to perceptions in Turkey that the alliance with the US was constraining Turkey’s security interests and regional aspirations in the Middle East.
The domestic political reform process as part of Turkey’s European Union (EU) membership bid, starting officially in 1999, were important for shifting the balance of power within Turkey’s National Security Council in favour of the civilian members.[iv] AK Party’s de-securitisation of internal issues such as Kurdish separatism and political Islam and the notion of Turkey as a ‘central country’ with strong historical and cultural connections with multiple surrounding regions, proposed by Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s Foreign Policy advisor and later Prime Minister, translated into a ‘zero problem policy’ vis-à-vis neighbours.[v]
The ‘strategic partnership’ with the US also remained important. Washington backed Turkey in the pipeline geopolitics for bringing natural gas from the Caspian basin through trans-Caucasus routes bypassing both Iran and Russia. The US also promoted the so-called ‘Turkish model” combining Islam, democracy and vibrant economics in Central Asia and later in the Arab world as part of its Greater Middle East Initiative on the heels of the US removal of Saddam regime in Iraq. Iran and Turkey would compete for influence in the post-Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia, where Ankara sought to a pan-Turkist narrative of ethnic and linguistic affinities among Turkic people to cement trade and political ties, while Iran tried promoting its version of Islamism, which did not sit well with communist-era elites in the region. In the post-Soviet space, the historical jostling between ‘Iran’ and ‘Turan’ would inevitably manifest itself periodically. However, Iran and Turkey would found a common cause in resisting the Saudi-sponsored Sunni Wahabbism in the region and the overall Iranian-Turkish relations would be defined by both cooperation and competition.
Given the Turkish economic boom of the 2000s, economic considerations such as accessing Iran’s domestic market, energy resources and a transit route for Turkish goods to Central Asia played a significant role. For its part, Iran also sought to deepen its energy and trade ties with Turkey with an eye to reach the European markets and the need for regional allies to circumvent the US-led economic sanctions. Thus trade and energy ties expanded greatly alongside the nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. Also, improved relations at the official level and burgeoning ties between business, people and civil society led to much interest in Turkey in historical, cultural linkages with Iran superseding the narrative promoted by the Turkish military elite of five hundred years of rivalry since the seventeenth century when their imperial predecessors- the Ottoman and Safavids fought frontier wars in the South Caucasus and Mesopotamia.
In 2010, when during negotiations with the P5+1, Iran refused to yield to the American demands of zero enrichment and heightened its enrichment activities amid calls for a ‘military solution’, Turkey along with Brazil – both the non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – sought to mediate in the crisis, insisting on the continuation of diplomacy as the only way to find a solution.[vi] The fear of entrapment in a US-led conflict with Iran that would further destabilise the region led Turkey to encourage Iran to accept an earlier P5+1 proposal for fuel swap. However, the West did not treat the Turkish diplomatic initiative with seriousness and kept imposing newer and more stringent actions.
Converging Interests in the Arab World
Iran-Turkey relations were strained in the wake of the Arab uprisings, especially with the unfolding of the Syrian conflict, where the two countries backed opposing sides. As Turkey strived for influence on the back of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ascendancy, the two countries seemed to be pursuing competing Islamist narratives in the region. Once fissures emerged among the so-called Sunni bloc after the Saudi-backed coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt in 2013,
However, Iran has criticised overt Turkish military operations against Kurdish groups in northern Iraq.[viii]response to forestall In June 2017, when the Saudi-led anti-terror Quartet (including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt) boycotted Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorist organisations, asking it to shut the Turkish base in Qatar and scale down its ties with Iran, Ankara and Tehran joined hands in supporting the beleaguered Gulf nation. Within months of the crisis, Iran, Qatar, and Turkey agreed to create a joint working group to facilitate the transit of goods between their three countries.[ix] Also, In the Syrian theatre, when the Kurdish YPG (Peoples Defence Units), the armed wing of Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), supported by Washington as the ground force in the fight against the ISIS, took control of areas bordering Iraq, Turkey, decided to cooperate with Iran against the prospects of an independent Kurdish state. Subsequently, Ankara gave up on regime change in Syria in favour of engaging with stakeholders committed to maintaining the territorial integrity of Syria. Furthermore, given the lack of solidarity from its Western allies in the wake of the failed coup attempt by cleric Fetullah Gulen in July 2016, Erdogan government’s list of grievances with the West continued to grow. Iran was quick in condemning the coup attempt. Ali Sakhamani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, declaring support for the AKP government on the night of the coup, argued: “We support Turkey’s legal government and oppose any type of coup – either initiated domestically or supported by foreigners”.[x] Iran’s unequivocal support to Erdogan is understandable given Iran faces its own share of popular challenges and did not want to see the overthrow of an elected government in its neighbourhood. With the US refusal to extradite Gulen to Turkey and the European criticism of wave of detentions and human rights violations in Turkey, Ankara engaged in a rethinking of its understanding of allies. Erdogan’s consolidation of power domestically was matched by an active, increasingly independent regional policy. After the US suspended ceasefire talks with Russia in December 2016, Iran, Turkey and Russia started the Syrian peace talks in Astana, and pushed for a ceasefire and creation of ‘de-escalation zones’ that will help stem the tide of refugees into Turkey.[xi] The ‘Astana processes’ remain an important platform for conflict management as the Turkish military and Iran-backed ‘resistance’ forces engage in bloody confrontations in the wake of Turkey’s operations in north-eastern Syria.[xii] A key economic dimension of Iranian involvement in Syria is a trade corridor through Syria to the Mediterranean via Iraq, as an alternative to Turkey, which serves as Iran’s key transit route to Europe. In 2018, Iran unveiled a plan to build a railway linking Shalamcheh at Iran-Iraq border to Basra and extend it to Syria. Also, in April 2019, Iran leased a container terminal in the Syrian port of Latakia.[xiii]
Friction in the South Caucasus
Azerbaijan’s victory in the recent conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and the active military and the diplomatic involvement of Ankara in support of Azerbaijan is seen as the revival of a pan-Turkist orientation focussing on economic as well as military cooperation in the Turkic regions, namely the Black Sea and Caspian basin, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The pan-Turkist perspective is likely to create friction with both Russia and Iran.* During victory celebrations in Baku, President Erdogan’s recitation of verses from the nationalist Azeri poet Bahtiyar Vhapzadeh, lamenting the nineteenth-century division of Azerbaijan while marking the Russo-Persian border along the Aras River, caused much furore in Iran. While Ankara swore that the verses were not directed at Iran but at the ‘Armenian occupation’ of the Azeri territory, the diplomatic quarrel underlined Iranian sensitivities about Ankara’s pan-Turkist agenda. Iran has its biggest ethnolinguistic minority – the Azeri Turks, concentrated in its north-western border provinces. It fears Baku’s irredentist claims and has therefore pursued a balanced approach in the conflict among its two neighbours, causing much frustration in Armenia.[xiv] Traditionally, Iran has extended political and economic support to Armenia, as the strategic bulwark separating Turkey from the Turkic speaking Caucasus and Central Asia and key to containing the Turkish project of pan-Turkic solidarity across Eurasia.
As part of the Russian brokered ceasefire deal in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian and Turkish border guards will monitor a transit corridor connecting Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, an Azeri enclave separated from mainland Azerbaijan by a strip of Armenian territory. The corridor via Nakhchivan, which shares a narrow border with Turkey, will link Turkey directly with the Caspian basin and Central Asia without relying on Iran or Georgia on Russia’s periphery. Hailed in Ankara as a ‘strategic corridor’ with prospects of new pipeline, railway and road connectivity to energy resources and markets in Eurasia, if materialises, will decrease Iran’s leverage over Azerbaijan, and also Turkey.[xv] Furthermore, Azerbaijan, whose victory was made possible by support from both Turkey and Israel, is seeking to normalise relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv.[xvi] For its part, Turkey, keen to reset relations with the new administration in Washington and also in light of the Israeli-Arab normalisation, has appointed a new ambassador to Tel Aviv after a gap of two years. Any potential improvement in Ankara-Tel Aviv relations will add to the Iranian worries about Israel’s rising profile in the South Caucasus, visible in expanding ties with Azerbaijan as well as the recent opening of the Armenian embassy in Tel Aviv after three decades of cautious dealing with Israel.[xvii]
For Iran, security role and interests of local, independent actors, and advocated a policy of dialogue and political settlement of regional conflicts. Iran’s cooperation with Turkey in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere has to be seen in this light. Also, Iran has been careful not to upset Turkish interests, lest it becomes part of US-backed Arab efforts to balance Iran’s influence in the region. Despite, Ankara’s active and independent approach to its neighbouring regions, enduring desire to join the EU, its NATO membership and keenness to demonstrate its usefulness the new US administration may lead it to contain Russia and Iran in the Caucasus and Black Sea region with Israel’s support. Therefore, Iran and Turkey will continue on a trajectory of cooperation and competition in the geopolitics of economic integration in Eurasia.
*Dr. Deepika Saraswat, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
[i] Arshin Adib-Moghaddam. ‘After the ‘Middle East’: Turkey-Iran in a New Region’ JETRO-IDE ME Review, 2018-2019, https://www.ide.go.jp/library/Japanese/Publish/Periodicals/Me_review/pdf/201808_01.pdf
[ii] Ehteshami Anoushiravan & Süleyman Elik. ‘Turkey's Growing Relations with Iran and Arab Middle East’, Tukish Studies, Vol. 12, No.4, p. 645
[iii] ‘Ahmedinejad’s Visit to Turkey: Two Neighbors Oscillate between Threat and Friendship’ SETA Policy Brief, September 2008, http://file.setav.org/Files/Pdf/ahmedinejad%E2%80%99s-visit-to-turkey-two-neighbors-oscillate-between-threat-and-friendship.pdf
[iv] Ozcan Yasin. “ The European Transformation of Turkish Bureaucratic Elites,” https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/issue-file/758
[v] Buhari Gulmez Didem. YEAR? “The resilience of the US–Turkey alliance: divergent threat perceptions and worldviews,” Contemporary Politics, DOI: 10.1080/13569775.2020.1777038
[vi] Ozkan Mehmet. “Turley-Brazil Involvement in Iranian Nuclear Issue: What is the bid deal?” Strategic Analysis, (2011). 35(1):26-30.
[vii] Ehteshami Op.cit., p. 652.
[x] Yücesoy Vahid. “The Recent Rapprochement between Iran and Turkey: Is it durable or is it relationship of Convenience,” Turkish Studies, (2019), p.9.
[xiii] Hamidreza Azizi, 15 March, 2020, Iran’s Multifaceted Strategy in Dier ez-Zor: From Fighting Terrorism to Create a Zone of Influence, https://www.swp-berlin.org/en/publication/irans-multi-faceted-strategy-in-deir-ez-zor/
[xiv] Vali Kaleji. ‘Eight Principles of Iran’s Foreign Policy Towards Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Valdai Discussion Club, 9 October, 2020, https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/eight-principles-of-iran-s-foreign-policy/
[xv] “Corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan worries Tehran: Iran, a crossroads in trade between Turkish countries, may lose this feature,” 29 November,2020, PLACE OF PIBLICATION? https://turkeygazette.com/corridor-between-azerbaijan-and-nakhchivan-worries-tehran-iran-a-crossroads-in-trade-between-turkish-countries-may-lose-this-feature/
[xvi] “Scoop: Azerbaijan seeks to mediate between Turkey and Israel,’ AXIOS, 23 December 2020, https://www.axios.com/azerbaijan-mediate-between-israel-turkey-erdogan-bb604eac-31d7-4dcf-b8a7-af6157328a50.html
[xvii] Vali Kaleji, Expanding Armenia - Israel Relations: Implications for Iran’s Foreign Policy in the South Caucasus, The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10 September 2020,