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GTE Question of the Month, May 2015


Iran and the P5+1 have reached a comprehensive framework agreement that stakes out the parameters for a final nuclear deal. Soon thereafter President Erdoğan visited Tehran. How does Turkey view the agreement, and what impact might it have on Turkish-Iranian relations in the broader regional context?

Meliha Altunisik

Turkey’s relations with Iran have been characterized by cooperation and competition, with an overall attitude of pragmatism on both sides. On the one hand, as two regional powers they have been engaged in a geographical competition that has entailed the use of military, economic, and soft power assets. The aim of each state has not only been to expand their own influence in the region but also to limit the other’s. On the other hand, as two non-Arab states in the region dominated by an Arab core, they have been increasing their cooperation in economic affairs and at times even in the security realm.
The essence of this complex relationship has been the realization on both sides that they cannot ignore each other or afford to have a long-term antagonistic relationship. Thus, although the two countries have in the post-2003 era implicitly competed in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and over the Palestinian issue, they have continued to cooperate on a variety of issues, including in the resolution of the nuclear crisis. The Syrian crisis did put strains on this delicate balancing act, as the two countries actively supported the opposite sides in the conflict. Even then, however, they eventually agreed not to agree on Syria and did not allow this issue to completely poison their relationship. Concerning the nuclear crisis issue, Turkey has been working for a peaceful solution since the beginning. To this end it provided space for negotiations several times, and in 2010 it signed a nuclear swap deal with Iran that was mediated by Brazil.
Today’s regional context, however, has been adding additional strains to the bilateral relationship. It is clear that Turkey perceives Iranian involvement in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and Iran’s ties with Hezbollah as Iranian expansionism in the region, and is particularly disturbed that this has been happening at the same time that Iran has reached a framework agreement with P5+1 on the nuclear issue. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made his discomfort clear when he accused Iran of trying to dominate the Middle East. Yet this quite open criticism did not lead to a cancellation of his official trip to Iran at the beginning of this month. His talks with the Supreme Leader and the Iranian President and the results of this visit are clear indication of pragmatism in Turkish-Iranian relations. The same pragmatism is present in Turkey’s perspective on the possibility of a nuclear deal: Turkey sees opportunities as well as challenges in the deal and thus sets itself apart from some other regional actors that tend to focus more on challenges and threats. Economic possibilities, taking the military option off the table, and reducing regional tensions are seen as significant gains. Ankara even seems to think that if Iran could be engaged as a more constructive actor, it may contribute to solving the Syrian crisis. Thus, although there are projections that Iran could become more assertive as a result of the deal, Ankara seems to have adopted a wait-and-see approach and is focusing more on opportunities for now.

(Meliha Altunisik is Professor at the Department of International Relations, Middle East Technical University, Ankara)

Riccardo Alcaro

On the surface, the prospective nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 vindicates Turkey’s long-held conviction that diplomacy was the only way out of the dispute. Some will even go so far as to say that the P5+1 come late, as Turkey and Brazil had already negotiated a compromise with Iran in 2010. The truth, however, is that the Iran nuclear deal is going to leave a bittersweet taste in Turkey’s mouth. First, the P5+1-Iran deal is infinitely better than the 2010 Turkish-Brazilian agreement, which was short on any firm guarantees that Iran would not use its nuclear program for military purposes and which lacked any backing by the powers Iran was really interested in: the United States and its partners. Second and more importantly, the deal could result in a partial marginalization of Turkey on issues ranging from Syria to Iraq or even on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If the deal is indeed reached, the US and Iran will be able to continue to interact bilaterally, whereby Turkey’s role as a go-between – something Turkey has never been able to make full use of anyway – would be downgraded. That said, the deal would also offer important strategic advantages for the Turks. It would remove the risk of further destabilization of its already tormented southern neighbourhood; it could produce a more forthcoming environment for US-Iran pragmatic deals on ways to stabilize Iraq and perhaps even pacify Syria; it would breathe fresh air into Iran’s economy, thereby boosting its imports from Turkey; and it would give Persian Iran greater legitimacy as an interlocutor, which would give Turkey more options in a region dominated by Arabs.

(Riccardo Alcaro is a Senior Fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) Transatlantic Programme)

Dimitar Bechev

Turkish-Iranian relations have never been a simple affair. Any time the two large neighbours with an imperial history going back centuries appear to be moving closer, tensions simmer under the surface. Equally, even when Ankara and Tehran pursue clashing interests, they are always circumspect enough to strike a balancing act. On the one hand, the prospect for a final deal on Iran’s nuclear programme belatedly vindicates the position Turkey took back in 2010 when it negotiated, along with Brazil, a deal of its own – one that the Obama administration walked away from, causing anger in Ankara. On the other hand, Iran’s reintegration into the international system undercuts Turkey’s value as a go-between the Islamic Republic and the West. It also bolsters the Iranian position across the Middle East – at a time in which Turkey is taking part in two proxy wars against Iran in Syria and in Yemen, where it has aligned with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s principal rival. In the past, Tehran has also backed the PKK on occasion. But, as in the case of intricate Russian-Turkish relations, Ankara will both seek to reap the economic opportunities once the sanctions are fully lifted as well as balance, to the best of its skill, its “frenemy” in regional conflicts.

(Dimitar Bechev is Visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE))