Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan got a warm reception during his two-day long visit to Iran. Friendly attitude was emphasized at the summit – it all goes to show that Ankara and Tehran decided to forget the serious political differences for the time being so that the parties could concentrate on economic issues. It’s a practical approach, boosting trade makes the countries get closer at the time they are tackling a host of burning regional issues.
After meeting Erdogan rahbar Ali Khamenei let know that the major obstacles, which had hindered the development of Turkey-Iran relations before, have been done away with. He said there is a solid foundation for expanding the multilateral ties between the countries.
Setting up Iran-Turkey Supreme Political Cooperation Council is an important step which would be impossible to take without aligning positions on regional conflicts, especially regarding the situation in Syria. According to Erdogan, the members of Council should work as members of one cabinet. At that, it’s too early to make far-reaching conclusions about the emergence of Ankara-Tehran alliance… The political circles in Turkey and Iran understand it well, first, they are aware of the hidden motives that make them move closer to each other, second, no illusions whatsoever are cherished in relation to friendly nature of the relationship. To some extent, the rapprochement between Ankara and Tehran is a marriage of convenience, a step taken while turning a blind eye on the existing deep divisions. On January 24, just as few days before the Erdogan’s visit to Tehran, an altercation erupted between Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif and his Turkish counterpart Dovutoglu. The Turkish minister lambasted the other side’s argument that Hezbollah came to Syria to protect Shiite shrines. Zarif said he was sure that Turkey knew the Shiites would not stand idle watching Turkey arm the people who destroy the Shiite holy places. Now the argument in Davos is presented as an «exchange of barbs». The Turkish Premier announced that an agreement is reached to fight terrorism in Syria as the both countries are concerned over the growing rise of extremists, some of them affiliated with Al Qaeda… He said Turkey will expand the cooperation and counter the groups joining forces with Iran. Iran and Turkey stressed the unproportional interference of Saudi Arabia into regional affairs. Riyadh remains to be the main regional adversary opposed by Tehran, as well as Ankara.
The interference of Erdogan into the Syrian conflict and the support for outside intervention (Ankara has become one of the states that interfere by arming and building training camps on its territory for the Syrian opposition) has made Turkey run into trouble by creating a new threat to its national security. Turkey has been imprudent enough to host jihadists on its soil. The radicals have turned the Syrian refugee camps located in Turkey into the breeding ground of extremism, the hubs of illegal arms and drugs trade. Under the circumstances the Erdogan’s face about is quite understandable, something Tehran used to its advantage.
Iran understands well that Turkey will never sever ties with the United States. Now Erdogan and his party are feverishly looking for a foreign policy line that would guarantee internal stability. According to polls, Bashar Assad enjoys 20% support for his fight against outside intervention and jihadist groups. It makes it at least unwise for Turkey to continue its activities as an active member of anti-Syria coalition where Ankara is far from being given the leading role. There is a joke going around in Turkish media saying that if Assad were a runner in the national elections, he would leave behind the opposition which has around 25% voter support. Every joke has a great reason. Erdogan has a unique political sense. He was the first to realize the reality and started to think about introducing changes into the Turkish foreign policy.
Actually, Ankara does not have many options. Pursuing the goal of joining the European Union has not resulted in any gains; the participation in the anti-Syrian coalition has pushed the country to the brink of serious internal upheaval. The cooperation with Israel was needed to display loyalty to Washington. Even after the Freedom Flotilla incident, the chilling in the Turkey-Israel relations was limited only by words, while military and intelligence cooperation remained intact. Now as the Ergenekon affair put the power agencies under the control of the ruling party, Erdogan needs to boost mass support in the country. Israel has become of no interest as a strategic partner. Especially as Tel Aviv has done a lot to provoke a new round of tensions in the bilateral relations.
Today only stability can help Erdogan overcome economic difficulties. The close economic ties with Iran, which Ankara maintained even in the times of biting sanctions, present a good opportunity to grab. He wants to strengthen Turkish lira, which goes spinning against the dollar, and compensate the losses resulting from «hot money» leaving the country. Turkey needs to attract more foreign investments. Boosting exports to Iran and implementing joint industrial projects, like a joint «energy free trade zone», is the way to achieve the goal.
The trade turnover between Turkey and Iran was $22 billion in 2012, going down to $20 billion in 2013. It has all the chances to get up to $30 billion in 2015. Even when the sanctions toughened, Iran still remained the third export market. Ankara openly ignored all the warning from Washington related to increasing gold sales to Iran through Turkish Halkbank.
The day before the Erdogan’s visit to Tehran, when it was declared that economic issues were to prevail, US Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen urgently flew to Ankara. He remembered that anti-Iran sanctions were still in force and Turkish companies expecting to make deals with Iran had to wait. He was listened to politely by business community and that was all. The starting scramble for Iranian market makes Turkish businessmen pay little attention to what the US says.
As the interest of Turkish business grows, Tehran is to gain because Turkey has been a playfield for «black knights» – trade partners who have helped the Islamic Republic get around biting sanctions. Today the sanctions are eased, but who would guarantee they wouldn’t become tougher tomorrow, while this issue is on the agenda of US Congress? Tehran is using the thaw with the West to engage new partners who could become «black knights» if needed.
After the Erdogan’s Tehran visit observers started to talks about a «new phase» in the Iran-Turkey relationship. Still it is not a partnership; the improvement in relationship is far from being the harbinger of Ankara-Tehran alliance. The existing political divergences between the two countries are similar to delayed action mines to go off at any moment and destroy the process of Iran-Turkey dialogue. The leaderships of the both countries are reasonable enough to realize how fragile the bilateral relationship is. The focus on economic cooperation is the policy of good sense. It could spread across the entire region encompassing the relations of Tehran and Ankara with other states.