Analysis: Turkey trying to balance relations between Iran, Saudis

Ankara walking a tightrope amid ongoing crises.

April 20, 2016 07:38
3 minute read.
turkey election

Supporters wave flags and hold a portrait of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan outside the AK Party headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey November 1, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The Turkish government is carefully walking a tightrope in building relations with both Iran and its regional archrival Saudi Arabia, in addition to Israel.

Because of a crisis of relations with Russia and its ongoing war with the Kurds and its support for the Sunni rebels in Syria, it would seem that Turkey and Iran would be at odds, especially considering the latter’s cooperation with Russia.

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However, despite the fact that the Turks and Saudis are aligned with the Syrian rebels who are at war with the Syrian regime and its allies Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, Turkey has strong economic connections with Iran. In order for Turkey to project its power in the region it requires cordial relations with Iran in order to promote its business and political influences in places like Iraq.

Furthermore, both Turkey and Iran oppose an independent Kurdistan and seek to keep the rising Kurd power in check.

“Turkey is increasingly dependent upon energy from Iran, particularly since its relations with its other energy supplier Russia are very tense after shooting down a Russian plane,” Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, told The Jerusalem Post.

Turkey certainly is concerned with the rise of Iran in the region and this is why it enhances its relationship with Saudi Arabia, said Inbar.

“Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the Sunni powers are displaying weakness after failing to depose [President] Bashar Assad’s regime despite their common efforts,” he said.

And regarding relations with Israel, Inbar argues it is “needed to counter Iran’s growing clout.” The AKP government’s Islamic coloration is preventing Ankara from becoming too close to Jerusalem, he added.

Michael Stephens, a research fellow for Middle East Studies and head of the Qatar branch of the Royal United Services Institute think tank told the Post, "It appears the Turks have concluded that the best position for them is to balance between the Gulf States and Tehran, not fully committing to either side, yet seeking economic benefit from both." 

"It is a delicate balancing act, that will require a lot of work to maintain given current regional tensions," he said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a joint news conference with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, in Ankara on Saturday that his country and neighboring Iran must work together to narrow their differences in order to tackle terrorism and sectarianism in the region.

Erdogan’s comments came a day after the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, meeting in Istanbul, accused Iran of supporting terrorism and interfering in the affairs of Middle Eastern countries including Syria and Yemen.

Turkey imports large amounts of natural gas from Iran and the two countries are looking to boost banking and trade ties, with the goal of tripling bilateral trade to $30b. annually in the coming years.

“The situation is ripe for cooperation between Turkey and Iran in the post-sanctions era,” Rouhani said.

How long Turkey can keep this balancing act going is a question since the Islamist AKP’s natural allies are non-status quo Sunni revolutionary forces in the region such as the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in Syria and elsewhere.

Saudi Arabia, a status-quo power, has major issues with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that want to topple the Saud monarchy. Partly for this reason, the Saudis have strongly allied themselves with Egypt’s regime that toppled a Muslim Brotherhood president from power.

Therefore, Turkey is balancing its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, but does not feel fully at home with either.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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