Could a Turkish-Iranian axis develop after the Qatar crisis?

Sunday 30/07/2017
Marriage of convenience? Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Ankara, last May. (Reuters)

Dubai- When Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain ran out of patience with Qatar’s contrarian foreign policy and imposed punitive measures in response to its alleged support of terrorism, they hoped to isolate Doha. While this may yet prove successful, they also embarked on a course of action that risks creat­ing unanticipated regional allianc­es, as trade and the shared threat of Kurdish separatism draw Teh­ran and Ankara into an unlikely, if wary, detente.

Turkey and Iran provided a be­sieged Qatar decisive support, which diminished the likelihood of the worst-case scenarios many had predicted in the face of its defiance of the region’s most powerful Arab countries. Qatar is just the latest area of emerging common interests between Turkey and Iran. They have been growing since the US in­vasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein and created chaos and mayhem on the borders of Turkey and Iran.

Despite competition to draw Baghdad into their own spheres of strategic influence, Turkey and Iran have maintained a common interest in preventing the potential territorial break-up of the country and against the emergence of an independent Kurdish state.

Both Turkey and Iran are home to significant ethnic Kurdish mi­norities that could be emboldened by a breakaway Kurdish state in Iraq or at least see their loyalties transformed. For decades, Tur­key has almost been in a constant state of war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Iran has been working to crush the Kurdis­tan Free Life Party (PJAK), which opposes Tehran and seeks to court the support that 7 million ethnic Iranian Kurds could offer.

While Turkey’s involvement in Iraq was initially premised on pre­venting the country’s implosion, it evolved towards more specific, and arguably more ambitious, goals to counter Iranian influence.

Yet both Turkey and Iran have limited their rivalry to avoid the risk of open hostilities or armed conflict.

What at first proved a narrow but sufficiently strategic set of core common interests in Iraq highlighted the two actors’ stark differences in Syria. Driven by the need to contain Kurdish separa­tism and convinced that the “Arab spring” represented a major turn­ing point for Syria and its majority Sunni population, Ankara threw its weight behind Sunni rebels in Syria fighting the Iranian-allied Assad government.

Syria remains polarised, as do the positions of its external stakehold­ers. However, though the mistrust created between Ankara and Teh­ran’s competing agendas in Syria may not be easily repairable, broad­er geopolitical developments have reduced the potential of any ma­jor Turkish-Iranian confrontation. Russian intervention in Syria and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Er­dogan’s growing friction with West­ern partners are part of the mix.

Now the problem of the Islam­ic State (ISIS) and long-standing threats related to Kurdish separa­tism provide sufficient strategic rationale for Turkish-Iranian co­operation. Against this backdrop, Turkey and Iran have a growing trade relationship. Although a pref­erential trade agreement between Turkey and Iran in 2015 to boost trade is failing to deliver its exces­sively ambitious $35 billion target (trade is still less than $9 billion), the potential for it to grow remains substantial.

Iran is crucial to Turkish energy security, satisfying 30% of Turkish oil imports and representing the third largest supplier of natural gas after Russia and Iraq. From 2004- 10, Turkey’s energy imports from Iran increased from $1.9 billion to $6.9 billion. There are plans for new energy pipelines, building on the existing Tabriz-Ankara pipeline, as Turkey seeks to become an energy gateway for Europe. Turkey’s state-run oil company, TPAO, has signed an agreement with Iran to develop three blocks of the South Pars natu­ral gas field.

Ankara and Tehran’s relationship fluctuates between strategic coop­eration in some areas and intense competition elsewhere. All things considered, the lack of synergy be­tween Iran’s Shia revolutionary core and Turkey’s Sunni political reviv­alism makes the possibility of any lasting Turkish-Iranian strategic axis unrealistic.

However, as long as Iran remains an anti-status quo force and Turkey a revisionist power in the Middle East, the pursuit of their regional in­terests could continue to inadvert­ently place them on the same side. To that extent, as key Arab powers strategically realign under the Sau­di-Egyptian leadership, a carefully managed rival Turkish-Iranian part­nership could emerge.