Turkey searching for new balance in ties with Iran
Istanbul - With its eastern neighbour Iran eyeing an economic boom and a more active regional role after the end of crippling Western sanctions, Turkey is looking at a two-tier approach to the resurgent Shia power: Ankara aims to benefit from the expected increase in trade while containing Iran’s influence in the Middle East.
For Turkey, with businesses looking for new export markets after slower growth rates, the end of sanctions against Iran could be a new source of economic strength. In a recent interview with the Turkish daily Hurriyet, Alireza Bikdeli, Iran’s ambassador to Ankara, called on Turkish companies to take part in energy-sector projects worth $300 billion.
Turkey followed UN sanctions regime but ignored additional restrictions slapped on Tehran by the West to keep Iran from building a nuclear weapon. Turkish exports to Iran in 2015 amounted to about $3.7 billion, which put Tehran eighth largest among Turkey’s export markets. Turkish imports from Iran, mostly natural gas and oil, totalled about $10 billion in 2014, the latest year for which full figures are available.
With sanctions ending following the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, Turkish companies are preparing to make the most of opportunities opening in the east. “There is a big potential,” said Mehmet Tanyas, vice-president of Loder, a Turkish logistics association, adding that Turkey, with its modern seaports, was in a good position to handle trade between Iran and the rest of the world.
Even before sanctions were lifted, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to boost bilateral trade with Iran. Bilgin Aygul, head of the Turkish-Iranian business council, said bilateral trade could reach $20 billion within a few years. Sankon, a Turkish business association, plans to send a delegation to explore business opportunities in Tehran.
Some Turkish media reports have suggested that Iran could take Russia’s place as Turkey’s most important energy supplier after the Turkish-Russian fallout over the downing of a Russian warplane by the Turkish Air Force near the Turkish-Syrian border last November.
But, despite the prospects for closer economic ties, wide Iranian- Turkish political differences remain. The Middle East policy by Shia power Iran is regarded with suspicion by Sunni player Turkey. One place where the two countries’ opposing interests clash is Syria, where Iran is a supporter of President Bashar Assad and Turkey is seeking Assad’s removal from power.
Turkish-Iranian rivalry in the region carries echoes from the past, as both countries are heirs to former competing powers — the Ottoman and Persian empires.
Shortly before a 2015 visit to Tehran, Erdogan accused Iran of trying to dominate the Middle East and said Tehran should stop meddling in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. “This has started to bother a lot of countries in the region, including us, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations,” he said.
In December, Erdogan said Iran was prolonging the war in Syria because of its support of Assad, who is a member of the Alawite community, a sect with ties to Shia Islam. “Had Iran not stood behind Assad for sectarian reasons, today maybe we would not be discussing an issue like Syria,” Erdogan said.
Also in 2015, Ankara accused Iran of being behind Iraqi protests against a Turkish military presence near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, held by the Islamic State (ISIS). In return, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said foreign countries should work with the central government in Iraq and ask Baghdad’s permission before sending troops. Iranian officials also alleged they had evidence that Turkey was buying oil from ISIS in Syria, a charge strongly denied by Ankara.
Observers say Turkey is reaching out to other regional players to win partners equally interested in checking Tehran. “Ankara is apparently recalibrating its relations with the countries in the region in order to counterbalance Iran’s growing clout,” columnist Verda Ozer wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News. She was referring to Turkish moves to repair ties with Israel and reports about impending rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt.
However, recent Turkish comments have been trying to play down differences with Tehran. Officials in Ankara suggested that at least some of the harsh rhetoric from the Turkish capital was connected to internal politics as the country held two parliamentary elections in 2015.
“Now that the new government is in place, it is expected that visits between Iran and Turkey will increase shortly, not only on the diplomatic field, but also in the areas of economy and energy,” Turkish media quoted an official as saying. Ankara also says it favours a reduction in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni power in the region.
As diplomatic contacts are intensifying, Turkish officials are trying to find out if political ties with Iran can be improved after 2015’s angry exchanges. Abdollahian is expected to visit Turkey in the near future, Turkish news reports say. Plans for a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who cancelled a trip to Ankara in 2015 because Erdogan refused to schedule a meeting with him, are also back on the table, the reports said.