Bloomberg: Turkey’s ties with Iran are under growing strain as the countries split on sectarian lines over Middle East conflicts, depriving the Islamic republic of an ally against western nuclear pressure.
By Emre Peker
Turkey’s ties with Iran are under growing strain as the countries split on sectarian lines over Middle East conflicts, depriving the Islamic republic of an ally against western nuclear pressure.
Turkey hosts opposition groups seeking to unseat Iran’s Syrian ally, President Bashar al-Assad. In Iraq, its defense of Sunni Muslim politicians drew a denunciation of Turkish “meddling” from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite formerly exiled in Iran. Turkey is taking legal action over the price Iran is charging it for gas, while an Iranian commander warned that a NATO missile shield in Turkey may be a target.
The quarrels undermine a showpiece of premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policy of “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbors. Two years ago, Erdogan resisted U.S. pressure and angered President Barack Obama by opposing sanctions on Iran. Now the U.S. and European Union are tightening curbs, saying they need to stop Iran developing atomic weapons, and prompting Iran to warn it may choke off oil trade. Turkey is avoiding the choice between its biggest crude supplier and main military ally.
“In the long run, if tensions between Iran and the U.S. continue, or in the end if there’s a military conflict over Hormuz, Turkey’s current position will become unsustainable,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. For now, he said, Turkey is maintaining its U.S. alliance and cordial ties with Iran in a “precarious triangle.”
17th Century Peace
Disputes between Turkey and Iran aren’t new. Two of the Middle East’s oldest and most powerful states, they have been rivals for centuries while avoiding open conflict since a 1639 treaty fixed today’s border. Enmity predominated in the two decades after Iran’s 1979 revolution, as secular Turkish leaders accused their neighbor of seeking to export an ideology of militant Islam.
Erdogan, a politician with Islamist roots, presided over a détente. Trade surged 12-fold in the last decade to $14.9 billion, and the share of Turkey’s exports sold to Iran tripled. More than half of Turkey’s oil imports and almost a quarter of its natural gas came from Iran last year.
As ties warmed, the two countries discussed joint ventures, though most haven’t materialized. A $2 billion venture by Petkim Petrokimya Holding AS (PETKM), Turkey’s biggest petrochemicals company, to access cheaper raw materials was canceled. Plans for joint power plants and refineries, a car-making project and Turkish development of a gas field in Iran have been shelved.
The failure of those economic initiatives underlies the worsening in relations that became visible during the Arab uprisings, said Wolfango Piccoli, a London-based analyst at the Eurasia Group, which monitors political risk. “Syria was the point that really showed deterioration kicking in,” he said.
Erdogan, who used to vacation with Assad, ditched his former ally as the Syrian premier refused to end a crackdown on protests that has killed more than 5,400 people since March, according to United Nations estimates. He now backs the Syrian National Council, based in Istanbul and including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni group.
The majority of Syria’s population, like Turkey’s, is Sunni. Assad’s family are Alawites, an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam that predominates in Iran. Assad’s government is Iran’s closest regional ally and fellow backer of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Sectarian divisions have brought a revival of violence in Iraq, where bombings and other attacks have killed more than 200 people since President Barack Obama announced the end of military operations in December. Maliki has pushed out Sunni ministers and sought to jail the top Sunni politician, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, on terrorism charges. Turkey called the move “unacceptable.”
Not Aimed at Neighbors
Also contributing to tensions is a radar for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization hosted in Malatya, southern Turkey, as part of a defense system that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says is intended to protect against missiles from Iran.
Turkey insists the measure isn’t aimed at its neighbors. Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the air defense division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, said in November the installation would be a target for Iran “if there is a threat.”
The U.S. and its ally Israel haven’t ruled out military action against Iran, while officials from the Islamic republic have warned they may shut the Strait of Hormuz, conduit for a fifth of global oil trade, in response to a threatened U.S. and EU embargo on crude sales.
No Opposing Interests
Whatever the rhetoric, “deep down Iran doesn’t see Turkey as a strategic threat,” said Kayhan Barzegar, director for international affairs at the Tehran-based Center for Middle East Strategic Studies. “They don’t have opposing interests.” Instead, he said, Iran sees Turkey as a transit route for energy to Europe and a communications bridge for nuclear talks.
The latest western sanctions followed an International Atomic Energy Agency report in November which said Iran may have studied the development of a nuclear bomb, perhaps as recently as 2010.
They may increase pressure on Ankara-based Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS (HALKB), a state-owned lender which facilitates oil payments, and Tupras Turkiye Petrol Rafinerileri AS (TUPRS), Turkey’s main refiner, whose lead supplier is Iran. Tupras shares have lagged behind the Turkish benchmark this year, adding 5.8 percent compared with a 17 percent jump on the ISE-100 Index.
Turkey, which secured waivers for Halkbank and Tupras from previous U.S. sanctions, hasn’t discussed exemption from the new ones in full detail, a Foreign Ministry official said in Istanbul last week on customary condition of anonymity. Turkey’s official policy is to abide only by UN sanctions.
Smile, Then Stab
“If Turkey takes sides with the EU and the West, it will harm its interests and go against its regional policies,” said Barzegar.
Differences over Iraq and Syria haven’t halted diplomacy. Turkey and Iran signed trade accords on Jan. 19, and at the ceremony in Ankara, ministers pledged closer banking ties. Turkey offered to host an immediate resumption of international talks on Iran’s nuclear program.
The pattern of simultaneous engagement and argument is historically typical, said Soli Ozel, a lecturer at the international relations department of Kadir Has University in Istanbul.
“They have a relationship where they smile at each other’s face and then stab one another in the back — it’s always been like that,” he said. This time, though, “Turkey may have to take harsher measures than it would like against Iran, because of developments that it cannot control.”