In his recent, much-anticipated, Tehran visit on March 4-5, the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was accompanied by several cabinet ministers as well as trade representatives, hit all the right notes necessary for “mending fences with Iran,” to paraphrase the Turkish media.
While emphasizing the friendly and good-neighborly relations between the two regional power houses, Davutoglu reminded his Iranian audience of Turkey’s support for Iran during the tough sanctions era, explicitly hoping for the dawn of a new “golden age” in bilateral relations in the new post-sanctions period.
As is well-known, the Turkish-Iran relations have taken a big hit as a result of the Syrian crisis, reflected in the more than 50% reduction in their trade compared to 2012, irrespective of both sides’ desire to insulate their economic connections from the regional crises. In retrospect, that has proved to be wishful thinking, and the jury is still out whether or not a new chapter has been inked as a result of Davutoglu’s high-profile trip.
Certainly, it is important for the leadership of the two countries to reconnect and explore venues to expand their trade and economic relations while searching for “common perspectives” on regional issues. Ankara and Tehran need each other for their respective strategies of economic growth and one can only hope that the expected tripling of trade volume to some $30 billions a year can materialize.
Turkey is also hopeful that Iran will join the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline that is scheduled to go operational in two years, but so far there has been no explicit Iranian commitment, partly because Iran is keen on not antagonizing Russia, which has seen a deep freeze in its relations with Turkey recently as a result of the Syrian crisis.
As valued a neighbor as Turkey is, geostrategically speaking Russia is more important for Iran, given their alliance in Syria, opposed by the Turkish and Saudi-backed rebels; Ankara has vowed to continue arming the Syrian rebels, particularly those in control of parts of Aleppo, and has also entered into a closer relations with Saudi Arabia, which has sent some of its state-of-art fighter jets to Turkey, ostensibly to fight the Islamic State (Daesh), although from both Russian and Iranian military perspective, that is a negative development.
But, a new, and very fragile, cease-fire in Syria appears to be holding and the UN is trying to telescope it to a more durable development through the Geneva talks between Damascus and the rebels, and both Iran and Turkey are key stakeholders in the Syrian crisis who need to bridge their differences in order to fuel the peace process. Much depends on the durability of the cease-fire and the UN-led efforts and, quite obviously, it is illogical to exclude the nightmare scenario of failed talks and broken cease-fire returning Syria to the familiar scene of chaos and carnage.
In that case, it is a sure bet that Tehran and Turkey, backing opposing sides, will be unable to execute some of the well-intended plans for the expansion of trade and non-trade relations; the latter are the subject of the next meeting of a joint Turkish-Iranian trade commission, which will hopefully capitalize on the new contacts made as a result of Davutoglu’s visit. President Rohani is also planning a Turkey visit soon, which might come in the aftermath of a successful deal on Syria.
Chances are, however, that we are on the verge of witnessing a real and sustainable cease-fire leading to positive outcomes in Syria, which in turn gives rise to a new mood of optimism about “new horizons” in Iran-Turkey relations.
In this scenario, a successful “managing the differences” between Tehran and Ankara would be possible and thus fulfill the official rhetoric on both sides. Turkey is, after all, Iran’s gateway to Europe and in the post-nuclear agreement context it is vitally important for Iran’s foreign policy to maintain cordial relations with Turkey.
Still, at this point it is unclear if the repairing of their relations, bruised by the regional realities, can proceed as planned, pending the outcome of cease-fire talks. What is clear, however, is that the relations between the two countries have been held hostage by the Syrian crisis and the fragile cease-fire is still too young and unpredictable to sound the release of potential energy for the full transformation of sources into actual assets in these troubled relations.