By Yasar Yakis*
Turkish-Iranian relations are experiencing new turbulence as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Feb. 14 that Tehran is promoting “Parthian (Persian) nationalism.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu followed suit by referring to Iran’s sectarian policies in the region. Foreign Ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu elaborated further, saying Iranian accusations are “neither acceptable nor comprehensible.”
Iran responded with a statement by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who accused Turkey of lacking gratitude. “Our friends in the Turkish government accuse Iran of following a sectarian policy,” he said. Referring to the July 15 failed coup attempt in Turkey, “don’t they remember that we spent a sleepless night for their government that is not Shiite?”
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi went a step further: “There are limits. We hope such statements are not made again. If our Turkish friends continue with this attitude, we will not remain silent.” Iran summoned Turkey’s ambassador in Tehran for an explanation.
Turbulence in the two countries’ relations is not new, and this will not be the last time. Each time, a modus vivendi was ultimately found. It is worth remembering that the border between Turkey and Iran is one of the oldest international boundaries. It was delineated by the Qasr-i Shirin Treaty of 1639, and has not changed an inch in almost 380 years. This is an indication of the stability of their relations.
An unfortunate coincidence is that this friction is taking place at a time when the two countries could together make valuable contributions to solving several regional problems, the most salient being the Syrian and Iraqi crises.
In Iraq, the fight against Daesh continues unabated in Mosul. Turkey and Iran could help Iraq get rid of this scourge if the Iraqi authorities invite them to do so. The help to be extended by a neighboring country is a more sensitive issue, because the refraction point between assistance and interference is not always easy to determine.
In Syria, Turkey and Iran have several converging interests. One of them is the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity. If the country disintegrates, it may take a long time for the region to stabilize again. Turkey and Iran could contribute a lot to the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity if they unite their efforts.
Another area of convergent interests is the Kurdish aspiration to establish an autonomous region in northern Syria. This aspiration is supported by the superpowers Russia and the US, though they also support Syria’s territorial integrity.
Turkey will be more directly affected by it because it will be surrounded from the south by a Kurdish belt. Syrian Kurds emphatically declare they only seek autonomy, not independence. But if Syria disintegrates, they are almost ready to proclaim independence. Turkey is opposed to the establishment of a Kurdish state that will surround it from the south. Iran also opposes this, but they cannot cooperate to abort it if they do not stop mutual recriminations.
The establishment of such a zone in Syria will encourage Turkey’s Kurds to try to do the same. This would be detrimental to Iranian interests as well because after Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish Kurds, it will be Iranian Kurds’ turn to do the same.
Since Syria can be expected to favor the preservation of its own territorial integrity, Turkey, Iran and Syria will have converging interests. Ankara may not be prepared to cooperate with Damascus presently, but the convergence of interests will remain to be explored when the circumstances are suitable.
Turkey and Iran are important trade partners. They have not been able to mobilize the full potential for cooperation so far because of economic sanctions on Iran. Turkey receives around 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas from its neighbor. If the Pars II oil reserves are fully developed, Turkey may cooperate with Iran to construct a pipeline to export gas from these rich reserves to Europe.
The biggest danger in the Middle East is further sectarianization of the conflict. Turkey and Iran (together with Saudi Arabia) could play an important role to avoid that.
*Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.