Turkish-Iranian Relations: From "Friends with Benefits" to "It's Complicated"

Article excerpt

Just a few years after key officials in Washington were branding Turkey "Iran's lawyer" with regard to the latter's contentious nuclear program, relations between Ankara and Tehran have soured. Between 2009 and 2011, Iran's and Turkey's immediate interests aligned, prompting Ankara to adopt a more conciliatory policy towards the Islamic Republic. More recently, however, tensions stemming from Iran's refusal to grant Turkey economic concessions and the longstanding competition for influence in Iraq and Syria have led to an uptick in tensions. What explains the shift and what are the future prospects for relations between the two sides?

The spread of the Arab revolts from geopolitically inconsequential Tunisia to vitally important Syria has driven a wedge between Iran and Turkey. The recent tensions have followed a period of unusual warmth that began about a decade ago and peaked between 2009 and 2011. Turkey's diplomatic defense of the Islamic Republic was driven by a desire to help resolve Tehran's ongoing nuclear row with the West diplomatically, as well as a larger strategy to further integrate the region economically. While fearful of an Iranian nuclear weapon, Turkish policy makers took a different approach to the issue than their Western counterparts. Ankara believed that the threat was far in the future and that diplomacy should be given more of a chance to be successful. Turkey embarked on the dual track strategy of reaching out to Iran economically and politically, with the aim of convincing the regime's moderates to be more forthcoming with the international community. (1)

The Turkish approach to the Iranian nuclear issue is reminiscent of its policies during the Iran-Iraq war, and reflective of the broader Turkish-Iranian relationship. The two sides are willing to cooperate when their interests align, but cooperation is tempered by the mutual recognition that the two countries are natural competitors jousting for influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. This rivalry has continued, more recently spilling into other areas in the Middle East. Turkey and Iran are perhaps best described as often suspicious and contentious neighbors who nonetheless manage to cooperate when their interests align.

Tensions Dominated the Late 1990s

The Turkish-Iranian relationship dramatically improved after the 1998 capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, and Iran's decision to crack down on PKK-allied insurgents operating from its own territory. Iran's decision to do so was tied to an uptick in violence by PKK-allied Kurdish insurgents, who would later establish themselves as the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK). The convergence of interests eventually led the two neighbors to sign a series of agreements aimed at combating these two groups. (2)

Despite some progress, tensions still marred the relationship. Turkey continued to claim that Iran supported the PKK and a violent and far more radical group known as the Turkish Hezbollah. (3) In the late 1990s and early 2000s, flare-ups and high tensions were common. At one point, Iranian officials claimed that the Turkish air force bombed a village in northwest Iran. Turkey countered with claims that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) and their alleged allies in the Turkish Hezbollah were responsible for a series of assassinations of prominent Turkish secularists. (4) Despite these difficult times, Iran and Turkey managed to avoid escalation and instead took steps to try to ameliorate, or at least manage, tensions.

The AKP and Iran Patch Things Up

Relations improved noticeably after the 2002 election of the Justice and Development Party (the AKP or AK Party). Led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AK Party doubled down on Turkey's diplomatic efforts to re-engage with its neighbors in the Middle East. While Turkey's decision to further develop its ties in the region began in the 1980s, Ankara's outreach to Iran intensified under the AK Party's rule. …