As Rouhani’s second and final term nears its end, the relations between Ankara and Tehran are also entering a new phase: Turkey is getting ready for more conflictual relations with Iran. However, this is not only due to the upcoming change in the Iranian presidency, which will probably be won by a more conservative figure, but also due to more systemic changes and regional re-alignments. The factors that made relations more cooperative over the last four to five years are changing and giving way to more conflict.
Historically, Turkish-Iranian relations have always been mixed, featuring periods of both cooperation and confrontation. The two countries created a diplomatic tradition in which the relations swung like a pendulum between limited cooperation and controlled rivalry. Economics has been the main pillar of these relations, particularly during the times of rivalry.
During the Rouhani era, notably, Turkish-Iranian relations reached an unprecedented level of cooperation. Four factors were central to this. First, rising anti-Western sentiment in Turkey. In order to galvanize public support, Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan played on nationalist sentiment and increasingly pushed a foreign policy discourse based on anti-Westernism, aiming to create a rally-around-the-flag effect in domestic politics. As Turkey inched away from its Western allies, it became easier to create more friendly relations with Iran.
Second, the emergence of the Astana process in Syria. During Rouhani’s first term, Syria was the main problem in the bilateral relationship between Turkey and Iran. Whereas Turkey aimed to topple the Assad regime, Iran (along with Russia) was the main force that kept Assad in power. However, towards the end of 2016, Turkey’s priorities in Syria started to change as it became clear that Turkey had failed in its effort to topple Assad. The result was the emergence of the trilateral Astana system that enabled close cooperation between Russia, Turkey, and Iran on their activities in Syria.
The third driver of cooperation was Northern Iraq: both countries rejected the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) referendum for independence in 2017.
As important as these three factors were, the main reason for the warmer relationship between Iran and Turkey was the competition with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the region. As the Saudi-Emirati axis took an increasingly assertive foreign policy line, seeking to dominate the region, Turkey and Iran came closer to each other. This was most evident during the Qatari blockade that started in 2017. Both Iran and Turkey were targets of the blockade against Qatar, and both rapidly sided with the tiny Gulf country, enabling it to resist the pressure from its more powerful neighbors.
Today, these factors are changing and will continue to change regardless of who wins the Iranian presidency. On a general level, Turkey is readjusting its foreign policy. It became clear that the anti-Western rhetoric used for domestic consumption has reached a level that has become too costly in foreign affairs. More significantly, the departure of Donald Trump, who gave Erdogan a blank check, is also pushing Turkey to readjust. In the Biden era, Turkey needs to address the contentious issues with the US as well as with US allies in the region. Currently, Turkey is seeking a rapprochement with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. While only small progress has been made, and solely with regard to Egypt, this policy of rapprochement with pro-Western regimes in the region will eventually undermine the honeymoon going on between Turkey and Iran. Although such a shift is independent of who occupies the Iranian presidency, the arrival of a more conservative president in Iran will only accelerate it. Conservatives have a higher threat perception with regard to the Turkish rapprochement with pro-Western regimes in the region.
Moreover, just like Turkey, the Saudi-UAE axis is also affected by the departure of Trump. Having lost the blank check they received from Trump, those countries are already starting to act with more restraint. Thus there no longer will be a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” situation between Iran and Turkey.
Finally, Iran’s significance in the Astana process is decreasing as the process increasingly turns into a Turkish-Russian collaboration – or more significantly a personal bargain between Putin and Erdogan. In this regard the transfer of the presidency in Iran will not change anything because Iranian policy in Syria is designed and shaped by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) rather than the presidency or the foreign ministry.
Aside from these changes in external circumstances, the policies of the two countries are also directly at odds in two other contexts: in Iraq and the Caucasus. In the Caucasus, Turkey stepped up its collaboration with Azerbaijan to a higher level of military cooperation during the Azeri-Armenian war on Nagarno-Karabakh in October 2020. The Azeri issue is always a latent but sensitive topic in Iranian politics. In this context, the two countries already came face to face in December 2020 when Erdogan recited a nationalist poem in Baku that called for the union of the two Azerbaijans, i.e., the Azerbaijan Republic and the Azerbaijan region of Iran. Turkey’s increased engagement and military involvement in the region will continue to bedevil the relationship. Since this is an issue of national security, and given that there is broad consensus among different political factions in Iran on this topic, the Iranian stance will not be shaped by who sits in the position of president. Hence once again, we will observe that developments on this front will not be affected by the upcoming elections.
Iraq is another front where limited cooperation (against the Kurdish independence attempts in 2017) has given way to rivalry. Turkey is increasingly entering Northern Iraq in its battle against the PKK, a Kurdish insurgency group recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the US. At the moment the mountainous regions of Northern Iraq along the Turkish-Iraqi border are effectively under Turkish military control, and Turkey is trying to deepen its military presence in the region. A new power equation has emerged in which Turkey is siding with the KRG against the Iranian-backed militias who are effectively allied with the PKK. As Iran is keen on preserving its gains in Iraq, a standoff between the two countries seems inevitable. Moreover, the new president will have little say on Iran’s activities in Iraq, as this is, just like Syria, almost exclusively the domain of the IRGC. Yet in both Syria and Iraq, a hardliner-conservative president more aligned with the IRGC would probably create a more coherent approach on the Iranian side.
All in all, relations between Iran and Turkey are set to decline in the coming years. In this context, however, the elections will only have a minimal impact. The changing regional context is forcing the two countries in opposite directions – irrespective of who wields presidential power in Iran. Moreover, in Iranian foreign policy making the president is only one among many actors, and their role is particularly limited on issues pertaining to national security. Thus a conservative-hardline presidency in Iran, as seems to be on the horizon, will only marginally contribute to the overall deterioration of bilateral relations.
Nevertheless, this will remain a limited rivalry. As two of the main states of the region with roughly similar capacities, Iran and Turkey will work to keep any clashes under control. Moreover, if the American sanctions against Iran are removed or eased, trade will once again be the main pillar of the relationship during a period of rivalry.
Dr Salim Çevik is an associate at the Center for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS) in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). His research focuses on Turkish domestic politics as well Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East.
On Twitter: @salimcevikk
Our blog aims to host a diverse, multi-faceted debate on the Iranian presidential elections on June 18. To this end, it highlights aspects that are important to Iranians in the context of the vote as well as fundamental issues like the question of the importance of elections in an autocratic system. We also consider the perspectives of selected regional actors.