Turkey initiates reset in Iran ties

Foreign affairs still remains the forte of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who used to be known as the Kissinger of the Bosphorous. Yet, it took him a long time to visit next-door Iran after becoming prime minister in August 2014.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, right, shakes hands with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Tehran on March 5 -

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani (R) greets Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Tehran on March 5

But when he decided to travel to Tehran in the weekend, he discarded Ankara’s expectation that it is the turn of the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to visit Turkey first, to make amends for the last-minute cancellation of his visit last August.

The Turks are very sensitive about diplomatic decorum, but Davutoglu decided that he won’t stand on formalities. Why did he decide to make haste to break the ice? Prima facie, the recent elections in Iran confirmed that the compass of the country’s policies is well set for the near and medium term.

From all accounts, Davutoglu had a useful visit, the profound differences between the two countries on the conflict in Syria and Turkey’s nascent alliance with Saudi Arabia notwithstanding.

The accent was on the economic partnership. Davutoglu was accompanied by the ministers of economy, customs and trade, energy, transport, communications and development.

One main impetus for the visit came from the lifting of sanctions against Iran, which opens new avenues to build economic ties.

Equally, the remarks by the Iranian leadership underscored a high degree of interest on their part as well to turn a new page in the relationship, which has been in a state of drift.

President Hassan Rouhani made a most significant statement while receiving Davutoglu:

  • Iran and Turkey have common objectives and interests and must strengthen the foundations for peace and stability in the region through improving bilateral cooperation and focusing on the fight against terrorism as a common enemy.

He assured Davutoglu that regional problems have failed to affect Tehran-Ankara relations and no obstacle can hinder the expansion of mutual ties in line with common interests.

The remarks must be taken as a signal by Tehran that bilateral economic cooperation should not be held hostage to the sharp differences on several issues of regional politics. Ankara entirely concurs with that approach.

Speaking to the media in Tehran on Saturday, Davutoglu said, “Behind closed sessions, we have already discussed upgrading the level of bilateral ties in order to boost cooperation in energy, banking, transport and tourism. By upgrading our ties, we can also sit for talks and resolve our political differences in the region”.

Having said that, there are strong indications that Tehran has no illusions that the two countries will continue to be virtually at the opposite ends of the spectrum in regional politics, and the differences over Syria are far too serious and fundamental to be resolved.

In his meeting with Davutoglu, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif spoke highly critically of the Saudi policies. Zarif was quoted as saying, “Some countries in our region, particularly the Saudi government, have pursued wrong policies, seeking to create tensions and insecurity in the entire region.”

Iran feels particularly embittered that at Saudi’s behest, the Gulf Cooperation Council has designated the Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

No sooner did Davutoglu leave Iran for home than Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian (who is Iran’s point person on the conflict in Syria) briefed the Majlis’ National Security and Foreign Policy Commission that Turkey’s Syria policies have failed, but Ankara is still pressing ahead with policies aimed at the overthrow of the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US.

In the Iranian assessment, Turkey views the ‘cessation of hostilities’ as a mere “time-out” to rearm and regroup the rebel fighters and prepare them for the next round of war.

The Iranian official media continues to be full of reports that despite the ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria, Turkey is beefing up its proxy groups in Syria by supplying weapons and by dispatching fresh batches of fighters.

While Turkey would have Russia’s intervention in Syria in mind, Iran views Russia as its indispensable partner in Syria’s killing fields.

In the current regional alignment in the Middle East, Iran and Turkey stand in opposite camps. Turkey has forged an alliance with Saudi Arabia to breathe fresh life into the moribund regime-change agenda in Syria.

Egypt is seeking an entente with Hezbollah and Iran. Consequently, the Saudi-Egyptian relations have entered a period of uncertainty, while Turkish-Egyptian relations continue to remain in a state of limbo due to Ankara’s nexus with the Muslim Brotherhood.

If wishes had wings, Saudis would have Egypt and Turkey make up. As a leading Saudi establishment writer Abdulrahman Al-Rashed put it this week, “Ending the conflict between the two regional countries, Egypt and Turkey, will strengthen the Arab side of the conflict in Syria, especially in its confrontation against Iran”.

Nonetheless, Iran believes that fundamentally, Turkey has more shared interests with it than what the unnatural and transient alliance between Saudi Arabia and Turkey at the moment would suggest.

Clearly, following the recent consultations between the two foreign ministries in Ankara, Turkey and Iran have decided to reset their bilateral ties. Iran is confident that Turkey has lost the war in Syria and a new phase in Ankara’s policies is about to begin.

Turkey always reveled at its potential to become a regional energy hub. Iran is also a viable alternative source of energy, which enables Turkey to cut down its heavy dependence on Russian supplies of gas.

Turkish business, close to the ruling circles in Ankara, eye with great interest the opening up of the big Iranian market. Turkey anticipates big opportunities in retail trade and the services sector, being the next door neighbor. Indeed, Iran can offset the losses on the Russian market.

With an eye on the future, Iran visualizes that an extension of the gas pipeline connecting Turkey to Europe might be a feasible option to promote its gas exports to a lucrative market.

Tehran never quite gave up on Turkey. It simply relegated the relationship to the backburner. But it took care not to get sucked into the Turkish-Russian discord.

Prising Turkey away from the Saudi embrace will remain the leitmotif of the Iranian diplomacy. And for that to happen, a constructive engagement is necessary.

The bottom line is that Iran sees that all is not lost, given the strong undercurrent of antipathy or resentment that used to exist up until recently in the Turkish-Saudi relations.

Indeed, the ‘Islamization’ of Turkey under the leadership of President Recep Erdogan does not cause disquiet to Iran. On the contrary, it only adds to the layer of existing cultural affinity, which was impossible when Turkey used to be ruled by secular Kemalists.

Rouhani will not only attend the summit meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Istanbul in April but also contribute to its success. Davutoglu’s visit to Tehran comes just a month before the OIC event will be seen by the Iranian leadership as a political signal from Erdogan.

 Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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