Iran and Turkey’s $10 billion question
Beirut - When Iran-Saudi tension was reaching a new high, with Riyadh leading an Islamic coalition to confront Tehran’s ambitions and expansionist plans in the region, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu was in Tehran. There he was telling Iranian businessmen that their country was “a treasure” and relieving it from the “shackles of sanctions” had ushered in a ”golden age” in relations between the two countries.
The recent visit to Iran by “Turkey’s Kissinger” was reportedly successful in spite of disagreements between the two countries about Syria and the nascent alliance between Ankara and Riyadh.
The visit had a business aspect: Davutoglu came with Turkey’s ministers of economy, customs, energy, transportation, telecommunications and development. The two countries agreed to try to triple their trade in two years. It shrank from $22 billion in 2012 to $10 billion in 2015. Thus, lifting international sanctions off Iran may have encouraged Ankara to overcome formalities and seek better economic ties with Tehran. For their part, Iranian officials showed great interest in turning a new leaf in their bilateral relations, which have always fluctuated between animosity and friendship.
In politics, both countries, which support conflicting parties in Syria’s war, said they had a common approach to preserving Syria’s sovereignty, a move seen in contradiction with a possible Russian-US plan to federalise Syria. However, Turkey and Iran did not seem to have any illusions about a rapprochement concerning Syria.
Federalisation of Syria is the best recipe for the creation of a self-ruled Kurdish region in the country, similar to the one in Iraq. This would encourage Kurds in Iran and Turkey to follow in the footsteps of their Iraqi and Syrian counterparts. Such a possibility becomes more dangerous with international encouragement of the “Kurdish dreams” and a US-Russian understanding over this matter, which worries both Turks and Iranians.
Ankara and Tehran, which drifted apart over the revolt against the Syrian regime, may reunite over fears of Syria’s federalisation, not only out of worry that Kurdish ambitions may threaten their own national fabric, but also because of concern regarding possibly losing any role in running the Syrian crisis.
When the United States pressures Turkey to appease the Kurds, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finds himself closer to Iran. Tehran is equally suffering from Russia’s growing influence at its expense in Syria. It is concerned that federalisation would confine Syrian President Bashar Assad — if he remains in his post — to a limited part of Syria, contrary to what it wants. If it has to choose between Moscow and Ankara, Tehran may prefer the latter for many reasons, including Islamic loyalties, which Erdogan and Iran’s clerics highlight every time the need arises.
According to Ali Montazeri, an Iranian journalist, the Iranian officials did not hide their worries about Syria’s federalisation, on the basis that such a contagion would spread to all countries in the region, including Iran and Turkey.
“However, both countries do not seem to have reached a joint understanding on the matter,” Montazeri told The Arab Weekly.
With Turkey now an important partner to Arab Gulf states in their dealing with the Syrian issue, Davutoglu’s visit to Tehran may be Iran’s last chance to renew contacts with Riyadh. But it may be the last such visit for Turkey if it is to abide by Gulf states’ latest measures against Hezbollah and escalation policies towards Iran — in case its efforts with Tehran reach a dead-end.
Davutoglu’s visit to Tehran raised many questions about what role Iran can play in easing Turkish-Russian tensions and about Turkish mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Samir Salha, a researcher in Turkish affairs, said it could be too early to talk about “exchanged favours” between Tehran and Ankara. “Russia says that Syria’s sovereignty is its job now, and this may be the only and enough reason for Iran to reconsider its alliance with Russia in Syria.”
According to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, political and military coordination between Saudi Arabia and Turkey is going well, with both sharing the same vision regarding fending off Iran’s plans in the region..
“The only difference is that Turkey still communicates with Iran and sustains its economic ties with it, while Saudi Arabia does not. This may make Davutoglu convincing in Tehran, while [Saudi Foreign Minister] Adel al-Jubeir cannot go there. Saudi-Turkish threats to interfere in Syria may have begun to bear fruits. If Davutoglu can loosen Iran’s tough stance, why not? Saudi Arabia wants a political solution for the crisis.”
While Khashoggi believes that Davutoglu’s visit came amid the backdrop of the landslide victory garnered by reformists in Iran’s recent general elections, he warns against too much counting on change in Iran.
But if Iran wants to reconcile with Saudi Arabia, it would prefer direct talks or a non-Muslim, neutral go-between such as Germany, argued Montazeri, the Iranian journalist.