Will the Turkish-Iranian partnership endure?

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Iran’s fierce anti-US rhetoric and policy, together with its nuclear program, have already incurred the wrath of Washington. This has occurred against a background of ascendant Asian economic powers and Russian energy dominance in Eurasia, rewriting the global energy map and the rulebook of global governance. Turkey has in recent years emerged as a sound diplomatic voice, bridging the gap between a powerful Western alliance and Iran. To help avert war on Iran and to continue its cordial and mutually beneficial relations with Tehran, Ankara must calculate its short-term tactical diplomacy with its long-term strategic interest in mind.

Recent years have seen a renewed warmth in relations between Tehran and Ankara. However, the events of the past year -- significantly, but not exclusively, the Arab Spring -- together with long-term shifts in the energy and global power balance have redrawn the playing field. If Turkey is to continue to play a positive role in the region, in particular with regard to neighboring Iran, it must focus on balancing short-term tactical approaches with long-term strategic interests.

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who heads the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security of Iran’s National Consultative Assembly, remarked on Dec. 20, 2011 in a meeting with the Turkish ambassador in Tehran, Ümit Yardım: “Officials of both countries should emphasize the continuation of brotherly relations between Iran and Turkey.” Boroujerdi said the historical, religious and cultural commonalties between Iran and Turkey provided the grounds for cordial interaction in various areas, including parliamentary relations. The remarks came in response to the Sept. 2, 2011, announcement by Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selçuk Ünal of the country’s decision to host on its territory a missile shield developed by the US for NATO. Both the Iranian and Russian governments have repeatedly expressed strong opposition to the project, with the Kremlin even threatening to deploy missiles to target the missile defense system in Europe if Washington fails to alleviate Russian concerns about its plans. The Turkish ambassador, for his part, highlighted the existence of mutual trust in relations between Turkey and Iran and said the dialogue and exchange of views between the officials of both countries will thwart the detrimental efforts of foreign media and enemies (“Turkey shouldn’t harbor NATO missiles,” Press TV, Dec. 20, 2011).

Turkey and Iran share a long-term strategic interest in utilizing their geostrategic and national advantages to reap the benefit of slowly emerging new global energy security and economic realities. What lies beyond Washington’s rhetoric of a threat to global security from “Islamic-inspired” terrorism and the Iranian nuclear program is an undercurrent in changing global energy and security realignments, with all its economic and financial fallout. Iran and Turkey, through visionary and pragmatic policies, can avoid serious pitfalls in their short-term tactical calculations for their mutually beneficial and yet sometimes competitive foreign relations. Iran’s geostrategic location and abundance in energy and mineral resources, and Turkey’s gateway to Europe and the US via NATO are complementary in their national long-term strategic interests.

Bilateral long-term strategic interests

Global events since the demise of the Soviet Union have revealed the inherent weaknesses of neoliberalism in providing for global prosperity and security. First the 1997 Asian economic crisis spread to South America and the Russian Federation. And now the ongoing housing and financial crisis, beginning in 2007, which engulfed the US in a severe economic slump, is threatening the very foundations of the EU project. Multiple rounds of quantitative easing in monetary policy and unrestricted transnational financial capital movement in increasingly deregulated markets across the Atlantic paved the way for economic and financial crisis on both continents. In the meantime “humanitarian interventionism” since 1990 has brought disastrous outcomes to people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia and Haiti, to name but a few. An absence of legitimate interventionism through the UN mechanism in places like Rwanda and Burundi has further revealed the inconsistencies in neoliberal predilection  for humanitarian interventionism.

The decline in the economic power and diplomatic clout of the US since 1990 and the emergence of China, and Asia in general, is recalibrating global geostrategic calculations at state, regional, and global levels. First China, India, Japan and South Korea -- together with other second-tier regional economies like Indonesia and Malaysia -- will remain, for the foreseeable future, the destinations for global capital investment and production. China and Japan are the second and third biggest economies in the world, and along with India command a sizeable consumer market. Asia’s population of 4.1 billion people (60 percent of global total) dwarfs those of Europe (733 million, 11 percent) and North America (352 million, 5 percent). Africa’s 1 billion (15 percent) and Latin America and the Caribbean’s 589 million (9 percent) are also potential consumer and investment markets for the rising Asian powers.

Second, Russia is bound to play a dominant role in the global energy market, but in competition with, and in opposition to, US strategic vision and policy in Eurasia. Thus far, US Central Asian policy has resulted in conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and popular political hostility. US military bases in Afghanistan are perceived as a threat not only to Iran but also to Pakistan, Russia and China. Meanwhile, US-India relations are and will remain limited and constrained by India’s needs for imported oil and natural gas, its sizeable Muslim population, and the urgency for détente and even entente with its nuclear rivals: Pakistan and China.

The New Silk Road Strategy of the US (see: “The United States’ ‘New Silk Road’ Strategy: What is it? Where is it Headed?” US State Department, Sept. 29, 2011), promoting and controlling proposed pipelines in Central Asia, has also been rebuked by a persistent Russian strategy to secure its position in the emerging global energy security milieu. The success of two future major pipelines, Nabucco (connecting Caspian Sea gas to Europe via Turkey, the so-called Southern Corridor) and TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India), remains very much uncertain without Russian cooperation. The 3,900-kilometer Nabucco is to bring natural gas from Turkmenistan under the Caspian, hitting five transit countries (Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Turkey) and may end up costing 26 billion euros (almost $34 billion), far more than was originally envisioned (“Hungary sees Nabucco costs quadrupling, may sue French firm,” Reuters, Oct. 24, 2011). If ever built it will break the Russian monopoly over gas supply to Europe -- hence Russian resistance to its completion.

Russia’s Gazprom, in the meanwhile, has maintained its hold over Central Asian gas resources. Russia’s energy strategy in building the North Stream and South Stream is to keep the European, and in particular the German, market dependent on Russia; meanwhile Russia’s pipelines from Siberia are to feed China and Japan. Gazprom participation in and control of the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China pipeline will also make Russia instrumental in controlling “Silk Road” energy resources. Russia’s next president, Vladimir Putin, has already invested his name in turning Russia into a Eurasian power and Russia’s energy abundance into a counterpunch against NATO’s expansionism, even writing as much in Russian daily Izvestia.

Iran, after Russia, possesses the second-largest natural gas reserves in the world and is already exporting to neighboring countries, including Turkey. The so-called peace pipeline, connecting Iran-Pakistan-India, and eventually perhaps China, can connect Asian gas pipelines to Europe via Iran and Turkey.

Turkish influence in resolving Iran’s nuclear issue can be instrumental in the completion of the Nabucco project without building the trans-Caspian pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, thereby avoiding a near-certain future environmental disaster. The completion of Nabucco with Iran’s participation may incentivize Turkmenistan to divert a portion of its natural gas to Turkey and Europe, with the rest flowing toward China and other Asian consumers. Azerbaijan will also be in a better position to free itself from the hold of Gazprom with both Iran and Turkey involved in the project. Both Iran and Azerbaijan’s feeding Nabucco could mean supplying both Asian and European markets, thus avoiding a future energy conflict between Europe and Asia. Iran’s participation in Nabucco would also translate into a major improvement in any future Iran-US dialogue to avert conflict over natural gas fields in the Caspian basin, even paving the way for a possible regional rapprochement. Turkey for its part will also be more inclined to support completion of the Nabucco project, despite its current cordial cooperation with Russia on transiting its oil through Turkish territory.

Third, emerging markets such as Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and Iran are making inroads in the global political economy. The Common Market of the South (Mercosur), for example, has created a free trade area four times the size of the EU and is responsible for three-quarters of the economic activity of South America. The four founding members (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay), now joined by Venezuela, formed a customs union in 1994 and have free trade agreements with the other members: Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Iran, Turkey and Pakistan formed the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) in 1985, which has since been enlarged to 10 countries, including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. ECO members have large energy and mineral deposits and human capital, with considerable potential for growth should members continue pressing for its institutional consolidation through political cooperation. Iran and Turkey already have a $15 billion two-way trade, which is set to double in the next few years. Iran’s willingness to share with Turkey its scientific and practical achievements in the nuclear field should also be taken seriously. The two countries must also cooperate in security, intelligence and diplomatic efforts to resolve their respective Kurdish issues. Given the birth rate in the Kurdish region of Turkey and the semi-independent status of The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) , the Kurdish question is going to continue to dominate Turkish politics in the coming years. Trilateral talks involving Turkey, Iran and Iraq (with the possibility of Syria joining the process) can only prove helpful in formulating a “common Kurdish policy” to secure both the national sovereignty and integrity of these states and the political aspiration of Kurdish people for autonomy and socioeconomic development.

The European experiences with the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC), customs union and free market can prove helpful here. For instance, Turkish, Iranian, and other ECO members’ investments in KRG infrastructure to empower the Kurdish business community and to provide for freedom of movement along their respective borders can only help with confidence building and cooperation in social and political affairs. Cooperation in environmental issues, tourism, flow of migrant workers and settlers and capital movement along shared borders, albeit within proper security parameters, can take place.

It should also be noted that the Azeri Turkic population in Iran, now about 20 percent of Iran’s total population, has successfully been integrated into Iran’s complex web of demographic structure through its own entrepreneurship, intermarriage and opening up of political inroads.

Bilateral short-term challenges

Iran’s active diplomacy has been successful in the formation of the “resistance quartet” of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, despite intense US and Israeli pressure. Turkish relations with Israel since 2007 have been at best troubling, with serious episodes such as the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010 pushing them to the verge of collapse. Turkey’s support for the Palestinian cause and a two-state solution based on UN Security Council Resolution 242 is universally perceived as “The Solution” to the Arab (Palestinian) conflict; one which would also resolve the Syrian-Israeli conflict over the Golan Heights. Iran’s “one-state solution” based on a future referendum of the “peoples of Palestine” is strangely in line with the Israeli political right and social conservatives’ view of a “united Jewish state in the land of Israel.” Demographic and geographic facts on the ground, however, increasingly suggest that prospects for a two-state solution are practically dead, unless Israel, through coercive diplomacy, is convinced that a pre-emptive strike for peace is urgently needed. Time is not on Tel Aviv’s side and, in that, Israel can be its own worst enemy. Turkey can play an instrumental role in this diplomatic effort.

Meanwhile, Turkish efforts at weakening the Syrian regime are counterproductive. The removal of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will surely not translate into the end of the military regime -- even if it did, Syria could still easily find itself in a state of chaos and instability in the short run, with adverse consequences for Turkey. A “democratic” Syria in the future will likely continue the current regime’s stance vis-à-vis Israel, the Golan Heights and the Palestinian issue, since only the full return of the Golan Heights can best serve Syrian national interest, albeit with some concessions on cooperation on water issues and security matters. Political change in Syria must take place from within and free of external forces. After all, one must not forget what is now happening in Libya. It is also interesting to see how the US and NATO are remaining quiet on events in Yemen and Bahrain!

Through prisoner swaps between the Palestinian National Authority and Israel, in addition to pressuring Tel Aviv via humanitarian efforts like the Gaza relief flotilla, Turkey has opened some diplomatic space for itself. Similarly Turkish mediation, along with that of Brazil, in resolving Iran’s nuclear issue has helped hammer out a “third way” diplomatic effort, further validating Turkish diplomatic weight. Ankara’s lukewarm relations with Tel Aviv could still prove instrumental in allaying Israeli and US concerns over the Iranian nuclear program. A strong Turkish stand in opposition to any military action against Iran, and Ankara’s using is influence within NATO to promote a “nuclear umbrella” for Israel could help maintain regional peace and, more importantly, push Israel to negotiate over its nuclear arsenal. A war over Iran’s nuclear program, on the other hand, will at the very least result in a higher price of energy for Turkey and other consumers, political instability in the Arab countries, a worsening situation in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, refugee problems, and eventually a nuclear-armed Iran.

Turkish active diplomatic and real support for regime change in Syria runs contrary to its short-term tactical and long-term strategic interests. A more assertive and yet “non-interfering” foreign policy approach can avoid the pitfalls of a “liberal” approach that is very often, if not inherently, hypocritical in its stated goal of humanitarian interventionism and pragmatic exigencies for national interest. Turkey’s relative silence on events in Yemen and Bahrain and acquiescence over the political status quo in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Persian Gulf states is only justifiable on pragmatic grounds. Thus, given Russia’s anxieties over losing its only Black Sea port access to and from Syria through the Mediterranean and Iran’s staunch support for preserving the “resistance front” against Israel, Turkish call for regime change through foreign-supported intervention is at best precarious. True Syria is, like the other 21 Arab states, in dire need of political opening and drastic expansion of public space -- but not through violent rebellion. Aside from the refugee problem and contagious political instability that might grip Turkey, the drastic weakening of the resistance front through violent regime change in Syria could easily plunge Lebanon and Iran into action, threatening regional stability altogether. However, a united Turkish-Iranian move to help Syria transit from crisis into political reform, while benefiting from economic assistance and trade from both, could prove successful.

The Syrian regime, contrary to the dogmatic one of North Korea and like those in Burma and pre-democratic Argentina and Chile,  is pragmatic. A successful political opening in Syria may take place through socioeconomic development and the growth of small businesses and the middle class, all of which can benefit from Turkish and Iranian investments in the Syrian economy. Given the historical suspicion of the West, Turkish affinity for the region, the popularity of Iranian resistance in the Arab streets, and the political bankruptcy of Persian Gulf Arab regimes, a Turkish-Iranian united front on Syria is a sound tactical approach. It is safe to postulate that both Tehran and Ankara desire more assertive, democratic Arab regimes, albeit with different prescriptions for balancing the “Islamic” and “republic” sides of the equation. It is further argued by this author that political Islam is and will be, for the foreseeable future, a dominant political and social force in the Arab and Muslim world.

As efforts to find an appropriate place for Islam in politics and society continues, Turkey and Iran are the frontrunners in presenting pragmatic, institutionally based, competing models for “Islamic democracy.” Iran and Turkey can thus help with political transition in Egypt and Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world, while learning from one another in bridging the Sunni-Shia divide within their multiethnic and religiously diverse societies. Toppling Arab regimes through foreign intervention, as in Libya, can only lead to the installation of the next generation of dependent Arab regimes, puppets to their masters and not in the service of their own people.


The post-Cold War era, beginning in 1990, has witnessed the unraveling of the neoliberal approach to global governance, resulting in severe international economic crises and military interventions in the name of humanitarianism. The economic decline of the US has not translated into a reduction in its defense expenditures  and the “global war on terrorism” has only led to further militarization of US foreign policy. Iran’s staunch anti-US rhetoric and policy, together with its nuclear program, has incurred Washington’s wrath. The threat of a US and/or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities remains a very serious one.

The emergence of the Asian powers -- China, India, South Korea, along with Japan and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members -- and Russian energy dominance in Eurasia has to some degree slowed down US interventionism in Asia. Turkey, in the meanwhile, has in recent years emerged as a sound diplomatic voice, bridging the gap between a powerful Western alliance, led by the US, and a defiant Iran, with a long historical memory of abuse at the hands of Western powers.

If diplomacy is to succeed to avert the next war in the region, Ankara must play a more constructive role. However, it must also calculate its short-term tactical diplomacy with its long-term strategic interest in mind. Turkey can thus be more assertive in its objections to any military action against the Iran and better balance its strategy on Syria. The emerging global energy security network linking Asia to Europe and the Middle East is bound to reorganize global power relations and governance. Iran and Turkey can prove instrumental in both Middle Eastern affairs and global energy security.