Rationalization of Turkey-Iran Relations: Prospects and Limits

By Sinkaya, Bayram | Insight Turkey, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Rationalization of Turkey-Iran Relations: Prospects and Limits


Sinkaya, Bayram, Insight Turkey


Parallel to Turkey's "new" Middle East policy that started in the early 2000s, (1) Turkey-Iran relations have gone through an unprecedented period of rapprochement. Ideological and security issues that dominated the relations between the two neighbors have been gradually replaced by pragmatic considerations on each side. A number of developments both at the state level and regional level have promoted pragmatism. The ensuing improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations has been crowned by a rapidly increasing volume of economic interactions between the two countries as well as security and diplomatic cooperation on a number of issues. In addition to the upgrading of bilateral ties, the two countries' regional approaches related to the Palestine issue, preservation of territorial integrity of Iraq, Iran's right to have "peaceful" nuclear technology, etc. have ostensibly converged. However, a number of developments that took place in 2011, including the revolt in Syria, the escalation of terror activities perpetrated by the PKK, and the Turkish decision to host US radar system, have overshadowed Turkey-Iran relations. (2)

Most analysts tended to attribute emerging sources of tension in bilateral relations to the revival of an historical Turkish-Iranian rivalry that dates back to the 15th century. (3) It is widely assumed that interwoven geopolitical and ideological considerations accompany that rivalry. Nevertheless, the arguments that underline historical competition between the two countries do not suffice to comprehend the highs and lows in Turkey-Iran relations. If the historical rivalry has such a decisive impact on bilateral relations, how can the rapprochement in Turkish-Iranian relations over the last decade be explained?

This paper argues that rationalization has established the groundwork for improvement of economic and political relations between Turkey and Iran. By rationalization I mean the promotion of economic interactions and cooperation that includes downgrading ideological differences and avoiding interference in each other's internal affairs. Thus, ideological and security concerns that dominated bilateral relations in the previous decade have been replaced by pragmatic considerations and cooperation. Additionally, a supportive regional context helped the two countries expand their relations. Especially the divergence of the Turkish approach towards the Middle East from the West on a number of issues contributed to the improvement of Turkish-Iranian ties. However, Turkey-Iran relations did not turn into a strategic partnership due to the ideological and political differences of the two states. Moreover, the Arab spring has profoundly altered the regional environment and has led to Turkey's reconciliation with the West, particularly with the United States, on a number of issues in the region including the uprising in Syria. It also culminated in the differentiation of Turkish and Iranian regional perspectives and it is this new regional context that accounts for the emerging tensions between Turkey and Iran.

Rationalization of Turkey-Iran Relations

The relationship between Turkey and Iran was on the verge of collapse in the mid-1990s. At the outset, these two states are built upon fundamental structural differences extolling incompatible ideological and policy orientations. More over, during the 1990s they competed regionally for a leadership role among the newly independent states in the Caucasus and Central Asia, adversely hastening tensions between them. The harsh rhetoric of mutual accusations between the two governments that the other party interfered in its internal affairs and supported disruptive movements against each other culminated in the withdrawal of the Turkish and Iranian ambassadors in February 1997. (4)

In the aftermath of the establishment of the new governments in both countries, the two neighbors restored diplomatic relations with the appointment of new ambassadors to Ankara and Tehran in March 1998. …

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