Is Turkey turning to Iran and if so, why?

Ankara and Tehran have long sought closer relations, but their new meeting comes as Saudi Arabia's king is visiting Moscow.

SUPPORTERS OF Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave national flags as they wait for his arrival at the Presidential Palace in Ankara. (photo credit: REUTERS)
SUPPORTERS OF Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave national flags as they wait for his arrival at the Presidential Palace in Ankara.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived at Sa’dabad Palace in northern Tehran to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
“Iran and Turkey, two friendly Muslim states, are the centerline of regional stability,” Rouhani said at Wednesday’s meeting, according to local reports.
The high-level meeting, which is part of a historic, growing relationship between Iran and Turkey, comes as Saudi Arabia’s King Salman visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday to discuss trade and the Middle East.
During the meeting between Rouhani and Erdogan, the Iranians stressed that instability in the Middle East was the fault of “ethnic and sectarian separatism and plans of outsiders.”
Turkish political analyst Ozcan Tikit on Turkey-Iran relations amid Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan"s recent revival to Tehran, October 3, 2017. (Reuters)
Rouhani referenced the fight against terrorism, mentioning ISIS, Nusra (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, al-Qaida in Syria) and the Kurdish PKK – the latter being an indication that Iran wants Turkey to know it shares its views.
They also discussed the need to respect the borders of Iraq and Syria and not accept any geographical changes. This was a reference to the recent Kurdistan region’s independence referendum expressing the desire to secede from Iraq. Turkey vowed that it would continue to increase pressure on the Kurdish region by working with Baghdad.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Erdogan that the Kurdistan referendum was an attempt by the US to create a “second Israel” in the region.
Turkey and Iran also discussed the desire to boost trade between them to $30 billion a year, including Turkey’s import of natural gas.
Turkey and Iran are on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, with Iran and its militias a key ally of Bashar Assad, and Turkey of the Syrian rebels. But as the frontlines have solidified in northern Syria, Turkey has come to accept the reality that Assad will not fall from power. It wants to maintain its image as standing by the Syrian people though, and to do that, Iran and Turkey must agree to work together on the “de-escalation” agreements that Russia has sought in Syria.
Iran, Turkey and Russia have been holding rounds of talks in Kazakhstan on the Syrian conflict.
According to Ragip Soylu, a correspondent for the Istanbul- based Daily Sabah, Erdogan went on record during the Iran visit to say that “Turkish armed forces will be deployed in Idlib, Syria to ensure the de-escalation accord.”
This would be a major game changer in northern Syria, inserting Turkish forces into a volatile area where Nusra and other extremist groups are present.
On Wednesday, Russian media claimed that a Russian air strike in Idlib killed numerous Nusra commanders and wounded their leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani. A Turkish deployment can only come if Russia and Assad are satisfied Nusra will be destroyed first.
Turkish forces are already in Syria near Jarabulus. That operation, dubbed Euphrates Shield, ended offensive operations in March after seven months.
Turkey’s apparent warmth toward Iran is not new. In October 2009, Erdogan told The Guardian that “Iran is our friend.” At the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president of Iran and Erdogan was prime minister of Turkey, but even then Erdogan said that he had “very good relations” with Iran’s leader.
A 2013 piece by F. Stephen Larrabee and Alireza Nader from the RAND think tank cautioned too much optimism: “Turkey and Iran have historically been and continue to be rivals rather than close partners.
While they may share certain economic and security interests, their interests are at odds in many areas across the Middle East.”
In 2014, Erdogan went to Iran to meet with Khamenei and Rouhani. “The United States believes détente between Turkey and Iran is important to wider stability in the Middle East, a strategic breakthrough Washington hopes to achieve from talks that world powers are pursuing with Tehran to curb its nuclear program,” Al Jazeera wrote at the time.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry called the meetings a “new phase” in relations.
In April 2016, Erdogan and Rouhani held talks and discussed boosting trade.
However, Turkish-Iranian relations soured after Iraq demanded Turkey withdraw from a military base in Bashiqa, Iraq. The base had been set up alongside Kurdish Peshmerga forces to help train Iraqi Sunnis from Mosul for the eventual liberation. Iraq demanded that the Turks withdraw in October 2016. This sparked a war of words between Erdogan and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Al-Monitor claimed “Turks blame US, Iran for encouraging Baghdad against Ankara.”
Ankara’s relations with Tehran have strengthened since the October 2016 crises. In June, Turkey sent troops to protect Qatar after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with the small gulf state.
Turkey and Iran grew close over their support for Qatar.
The Qatar crisis was largely sparked by the assertion by the UAE and Saudi Arabia that Qatar supports religious extremism, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Why does this matter to Turkey? Because Turkey had positive relations with the Brotherhood and Hamas, a relationship that strained ties with Egypt after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted Brotherhood member and President Mohamed Morsi from power in 2013. However, Turkey has acted in the last year to repair relations with Egypt as well.
Ankara also announced the purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia in September. This was the “latest milestone in Ankara’s ongoing drift in recent years away from its traditional strategic position in the region as a NATO and US ally,” Jonathan Spyer wrote in The Jerusalem Post last month.
These developments put in the spotlight the recent visit by King Salman to Russia. The Kremlin’s official announcement on the Putin-Salman meeting says that there is a “detailed exchange of views on international issues,” including the Middle East and North Africa.
Although Erdogan has not addressed the Saudi-Russia meeting, he was asked about Putin’s opposition to cutting off oil from the Kurdish region, since Russian oil giant Rosneft has interests there. Higher oil prices would be better for Russia, the Turkish leader responded, according to Turkish newspaper Milliyet.
The larger story of the Turkey-Iran and Saudi-Russia meetings is that the traditional major powers of the region see that the wars in Iraq and Syria are winding down and they want to re-assert not only their control but also stability in the regional system of diplomacy.
That may be difficult news for Israel because Iran has grown in strength, and references by Iranian leaders to Kurdistan as a “second Israel,” alongside Turkish media spreading conspiracies about the Mossad being involved in the Kurdish referendum, reinforce the continued regional opposition to Israel.
The question is whether Russia and Saudi Arabia might balance the warming of relations between Ankara and Tehran. In both cases, it seems US policy is once again being ignored by regional powers who see the United States as less relevant.