Turkey’s strange ties with Iran, still presented as a significant pillar to the region’s stability, have deteriorated into virtual unacknowledged warfare, with two countries literally waging a proxy war beyond their borders in the region.
Throughout the last century, Iran and Turkey had difficult times to understand how they relate to each other but couldn’t risk severing ties despite numerous confrontations over a wide range of regional issues. In the past few years, Turkish government officials used a treaty signed between Ottoman and Iranian delegates in the city of Qasr-e Shirin to describe how the borders of the two countries have remained unchanged since the agreement was signed in 1639, a widely accepted myth.
Turkish officials frequently refer to the Qasr-e Shirin agreement to illustrate how their relationship is solid and based on mutual respect. Since the famous agreement, six states have been established in both countries (two in Turkey and four in Iran) and the borders had changed for ten times, the last time in 1931. Presenting the Qasr-e Shirin myth as a cover for a number of wars the two countries fought in the past four centuries also characterizes today’s relationship between Iran and Turkey.
While Iranian political and military officials are unrestrained in their critical remarks about Turkey, often tantamount to threats, Turkish officials are much softer while talking about their relationship, emphasizing the importance of cooperation between the two nations. It is unclear how false description of ties helps prevent further confrontation at a time when the two nations are even fighting a proxy war in Syria, where more than two years of civil war has left at least 100,000 people dead, mostly civilians.
When Turkey kicked off its ambitious foreign policy in the region under the leadership of its popular prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his then adviser and later Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu tried to assure the neighboring countries that Turkey’s rise is peaceful and that it only aims to advance peace in the region. Davutoğlu’s goal was to cultivate relations among countries in Turkey’s vicinity by abolishing visa requirements, creating free trade zones, and constantly holding high-level political consultations. Deepening ties with Iran was a cornerstone of this project that is now crumbling after Iran has started to sabotage Turkey’s interests in the region.
During his visit to Beirut in 2010, Erdoğan received a hero’s welcome but Turkey’s influence in the country has declined precipitously since then. Kidnapping of Turkish citizens are on the rise while its interests are under great danger. In Iraq, Turkish diplomats had a rare ability to talk to every segment of the war-torn nation and Turkey conducted a flurry of diplomacy during government formation process in 2010. In the case of Syria, the relationship has been one of the best success stories of modern times. From the brink of war in 1999, only prevented thanks to mediation of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to lifting what they called “artificial borders” in 2010, Turkey slowly drifted Syria out of Iran’s orbit of influence, contributing to Syria’s integration to the Western world.
In a region of constantly shifting ground, Turkey failed to maintain these ties and it still refuses to publicly acknowledge that Iran is to blame for much of the foreign policy mess Turkey is involved in in neighboring countries.
Turkey’s mistake was to put too much trust on Iran’s conduct of foreign policy. Without having any kind of bargaining deal, Ankara shielded Iran against the fourth round of U.N. Security Council sanctions at the expense of its strategic ties with the United States. It also prevented NATO from openly describing its anti-missile radar system stationed in Turkey as an installation built against Iran.
Turkey has received little, if any, in return. Despite Turkey’s reluctance to cut import of natural gas from Iran as part of unilateral sanctions by Washington, Iran charges around $500 for a thousand cubic meters of natural gas, more than any of Turkey’s gas trade partners.
Iranian officials bash Turkey every week, sometimes issuing threatening statements. When inquired, they claim that the officials are only expressing their “personal views” and that they don’t fit into Iran’s official policy towards Turkey.
In Lebanon, Iran’s destabilizing role is not unknown. They largely bankroll Hezbollah to fight a war on behalf of the Syrian regime against rebels backed by Turkey. In Syria, Tehran is providing a credit line to Damascus, frequently sends cargo planes full of weapons and dispatch military advisers and militants to fight against the rebels. Iran’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is no doubt one of the reasons why rebels failed to make progress since April this year, a major setback for Turkey’s interests.
In Iraq, the situation remains as bleak as ever. Turkey is not talking to Baghdad and its companies that used to receive lucrative deals are under tremendous pressure by the central government. Since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in December 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Erdoğan have exchanged a war of words, both accusing each other of destabilizing Iraq. It is also not surprising to see that the Iranian-backed government of Maliki has done everything to sabotage Turkish interests in the country despite efforts by Washington to reverse this course.
There are privately held views among Turkish government officials that Iran should get the wrecking-ball treatment as a way of preserving Turkey’s national interests. Failing to recognize that Iran is the source of many of the woes that characterize Turkey’s ailing foreign policy could spell further harm for Ankara’s interests. Iran and Turkey should start seriously discussing the scope of their relations, agree to disagree on a wide array of regional issues and make strict ‘give and take’ deals. History has shown time and again to bet on Iran’s conduct in foreign policy initiatives carries with it risk.
Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today’s Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov