Turkey’s Iran dilemma

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Relations between Ankara and Iran had until recently been growing increasingly warm. Expanding trade between the neighbors, including Turkey’s reliance on Iran to meet much of its energy needs, has been a factor -- as has Ankara’s ‘zero problems with neighbors’ foreign policy. However, growing international pressure on Tehran over its nuclear ambitions has been putting strain on ties between Turkey and its neighbor, tensions exacerbated by the two counties’ jockeying for a more prominent regional role in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. As Turkey’s efforts to balance its relations between East and West draw Iranian ire, the benefits of close ties with Tehran are becoming increasingly uncertain.

In recent years, Turkey and Iran have moved markedly closer on trade, diplomacy and strategic affairs. Yet growing signs now suggest that the rapprochement could turn out to be fleeting. New conflicts over issues such as energy, Turkey’s role in NATO, and the Arab Spring signal a cooling of bilateral ties between Ankara and Tehran -- and foreshadow a rethinking of the relationship on Turkey’s part.

The past decade has borne witness to a profound shift in Turkey’s foreign policy orientation. All too often, this change is traced back to Turkey’s differences with the administration of US President George W. Bush over its decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and the chill in diplomatic relations between Ankara and Washington that has since prevailed. But while the Iraq war undoubtedly played a role in Turkey’s foreign policy reorientation, the fundamental cause lies considerably deeper, in the quest for an independent, multi-vector foreign policy that has come to dominate the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) approach to international affairs since it assumed power in late 2002.

That process has seen Ankara institute significant changes to its relationships with some global players (such as Israel and the US) and forge new alliances with others. Of those, none is more significant than Iran. After a profound thaw in relations over the past half-decade, Turkey now boasts a growing economic, political and strategic closeness to its historic regional rival.

This new proximity is most clearly visible in the economic arena. Between 2000 and 2010, bilateral trade between the two countries grew 10-fold, topping $10 billion at the start of this decade. And this cooperation is poised to surge still further; Turkish and Iranian officials have publicly expressed hopes that economic ties will treble over the next couple of years, reaching $30 billion annually by 2015.

Economic partnership serves a concrete purpose for both countries. Dynamic growth in recent years has significantly expanded Turkey’s domestic energy demand, and Ankara has increasingly turned to Tehran for assistance; Turkey now obtains an estimated 30 percent of its oil, and between 20 and 30 percent of its natural gas, from Iran. Turkey, meanwhile, has emerged as a major lifeline for Iran, providing the Islamic republic with vital access to international markets in the face of widening pressure from the international community over Tehran’s nuclear program.

A growing political proximity is visible as well, manifested in new congruence -- and cooperation -- between the two countries on a range of issues. These include shared support for the Palestinian Hamas movement in Gaza, as well as Ankara’s emergence as a public backer of Iran’s persistent quest for nuclear capability. The state of affairs was succinctly summed up by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan back in 2009, when he told London newspaper The Guardian that Turkey has come to see Iran as “a friend,” and bilateral ties between the two countries were proceeding with “no difficulty at all” (The Guardian, Oct. 26, 2009).

That harmony, however, is proving to be anything but long-lived. Over the past year, tensions have arisen between the two countries on a number of fronts, casting a pall over their newly minted partnership.

The most immediate point of discord can be found in the Arab Spring. In recent months, in response to regional developments, Turkey has charted an increasingly assertive foreign policy course in the Middle East and North Africa. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s very public September 2011 state visit to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia served public notice that Turkey intends to play a leading political role in those places -- and beyond. The lavish reception enjoyed by Erdoğan on that occasion, and his widespread popularity in the region since, are a telling indication that Turkey’s leadership is both appreciated and sought after.

That of Iran, by contrast, is not. Iran’s leadership itself has sought to exploit the ferment that has accompanied the Arab Spring, taking pains to depict regional changes as the belated fruit of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 and as the start of a larger “Islamic awakening” in the region. But Iran’s ideological message has fallen largely on deaf ears. As Georgetown University’s Prof. Colin Kahl (a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense) recently noted in Foreign Policy magazine, a year on “it is hard to find evidence that Iran has benefited from the Arab uprisings” (Foreign Policy, Jan. 25, 2012). Needless to say, Turkey’s successes and Iran’s failures have only served to heighten ideological differences between the two countries -- and to highlight their divergent views regarding the proper direction of the greater Middle East.

Nowhere has this been more in evidence than with regard to Syria. Initially, Ankara took pains to stay on the sidelines of the conflict  that erupted between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and its own people in March 2011, preferring to try and convince the Syrian regime to change course through quiet diplomacy. Over time, however, Turkey has adopted an increasingly activist role vis-à-vis Syria, and today even plays host to the upper echelons of the Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition to the al-Assad regime. The Iranian leadership, by contrast, has made no secret of its backing for the Syrian government, and has provided political support as well as paramilitary assistance in support of the latter’s bid to stay in power.

Turkey’s efforts to balance its relations between East and West likewise have drawn Iranian ire. Ankara’s formal decision last year to host early warning radars for NATO’s emerging European missile shield was widely seen in the US and Europe as a tangible (and encouraging) sign of Ankara’s continuing commitment to the North Atlantic Alliance. This role, however, has put Turkey on a collision course with Iran, insofar as NATO missile defenses will be oriented toward defending member countries first and foremost from the threat posed by Iran’s expanding strategic arsenal. In response, Iran has threatened to target NATO bases in Turkey in the event of a conflict with either the US or Israel -- a move that would, by extension, put Turkey in the crosshairs of any unfolding confrontation between Iran and the international community.

Tensions over energy are also mounting. Despite the signing of a “road map” for expanded cooperation in early 2011, Turkey and Iran’s energy relationship has been fraught with complications. As a result, there are now signs that Turkey is seeking to lessen its current, deep dependence on Iranian oil and gas. Turkish refiner Tupraş, for example, is said to be in conversation with Saudi Arabian suppliers as part of a concerted move to lessen Ankara’s reliance on Iranian oil deliveries and to diversify sources of energy supply (Gulf Times, Jan. 21, 2012). The move speaks volumes; for all of their public pronouncements to the contrary, Turkish officials have found Iran to be a less-than-dependable energy partner, and now are quietly working to mitigate exposure to it.

Turkey’s relationship with Iran, in short, is fast approaching a turning point. It has become exceedingly clear that the modus vivendi established between Ankara and Tehran is under growing strain, and that Turkey’s government will soon need to seriously weigh the merits of continued cooperation with Tehran.

For one thing, the potential costs associated with the partnership are soaring. Recent weeks have seen a marked acceleration of international pressure on Iran over its nuclear program. Part and parcel of that effort has been the signing into law by US President Barack Obama of legislation aimed at isolating and marginalizing the Central Bank of Iran -- and penalizing those financial institutions that conduct (or facilitate) business with it. This includes a number of prominent Turkish banks -- among them Halkbank, which has been involved in facilitating Indian purchases of Iranian crude. Other measures have progressively taken aim at foreign firms involved in commerce with the Islamic republic. As the sanctions noose around Iran begins to tighten in earnest, Turkey could begin to pay a real economic price. Or even a physical one. As a recent report in Today’s Zaman newspaper detailed, Turkey’s intelligence community is now increasingly apprehensive that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards could soon launch civic disruptions in Turkey -- including, potentially, a bomb attack against the embassy or consulate of the US. In recent months, Tehran also has adopted an increasingly soft stance toward Turkey’s main terrorist threat, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Its capture and subsequent release of senior PKK leader Murat Karayılan this summer cast tainted counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries, and raised worries that Iran, itself an active state sponsor of terrorism,  might even become a backer of extremism against the Turkish state should relations between the two countries deteriorate.

For Turkish leaders, concerned above all with cementing their country’s standing as a global power, these developments should make partnership with Iran an increasingly risky proposition. To be sure, an outright divorce between the two countries is probably not in the offing; officials in Ankara, after all, have taken pains to declare publicly that they “are not bound” by US and European decisions vis-à-vis pressure against Iran. And yet, whatever the official rhetoric, it is clear that the dividends of Turkey’s partnership with Iran are increasingly uncertain, while the costs are potentially steep.