Over the past decade, Turkey and Iran have enjoyed several years of strategic partnership, characterized by military cooperation, converging geopolitical interests, and expanding trade ties. However, after years of high-level cooperation, bilateral relations between Tehran and Ankara have recently been facing tensions, stemming from Turkey’s geopolitical realignment and increasing power projection in its immediate neighborhood. Despite a wider détente, Ankara and Tehran have backed opposite sides in several important regional conflicts, including the Syrian Civil War and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. These regional conflicts have led to rhetorical conflict, with ministers from each country accusing the other of undermining its sovereignty. If unchecked, this pattern of escalating rhetoric could set the stage for a larger confrontation between the two regional powers.
Better the Devil You Know
After the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, bilateral relations between Ankara and Tehran were significantly upgraded. Despite years of tensions with Turkey on Syria and Yemen, Iran openly condemned the coup while it was in progress, becoming one of the first countries in the world to support the Turkish government. As Turkey’s foreign policy became increasingly predicated on the survival of Erdogan’s regime, such a gesture from Tehran was very well-received by Ankara. For Tehran, dealing with Fetullah Gülen, known to be ideologically very hostile to Iran, would have been more problematic than maintaining reliable, though occasionally adversarial, ties with Erdogan’s government. For this reason, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, within hours of the coup attempt, telling him that Erdogan had Iran’s full support.
Later in 2017, Tehran and Ankara found each other on the same side against Abu Dhabi and Riyadh in the 2017 GCC crisis. Riyadh was critical not only of Doha’s hosting of Muslim Brotherhood leaders (to which Turkey’s Erdogan adhered), but also of its increasingly friendly ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s ideological and geopolitical arch-enemy. As both Tehran and Ankara openly supported Doha, bilateral ties were further strengthened. When the Kurdish independence referendum was held in the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq in September 2017, Tehran and Ankara cooperated in a bid to dissuade it from declaring independence.
The Enemy of My Enemy
Over the past decade, as Ankara’s relations with the West have steadily worsened, it has gravitated towards partnerships with Tehran and Moscow. For Erdogan, the fact that the United States and many EU countries waited to condemn the coup until its failure was certain deepened the strain in relations with the West. In the aftermath of the coup, Washington also refused to extradite Fethullah Gülen, its alleged perpetrator, leading to further hostility.
The following year, Erdogan weakened U.S.-Turkish military and commercial ties by replacing Turkey’s aging Patriot missile defense system with the modern S-400 system from Russia, angering the American government. Meanwhile, President Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran and the failure of the EU to resuscitate the agreement created the perfect environment for Iran and Turkey to collaborate.
Differing Regional Agendas
Despite the general improvement in relations, recent developments have the potential to cast a shadow over Turkey’s significantly improved ties with Iran. Much to Iran’s displeasure, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said in March that there was no reason for Ankara not to “mend ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates”. Riyadh has so far dismissed Ankara’s willingness for rapprochement, and has continued its joint military maneuvers with Greece, Turkey’s historic enemy, in the Mediterranean Sea. However, in a sign of indirect détente, Saudi companies have started co-producing drones with Turkey. Broadly speaking, Ankara has signaled its intention for a détente, and the next several months will prove critical, especially given that Turkey also signaled a similar interest to repair its relations with Egypt, another Saudi ally in the region.
The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan laid bare the stark differences between Turkey and Iran in the Caucasus. Turkey’s expansionist approach to the conflict, rooted in a broadly Pan-Turkic foreign policy, directly threatens Iranian and Russian interests. This is particularly salient to Tehran, given the conflict’s presence on Iran’s northern borders and the presence of many Azeris in northern Iran. During the 1990s, although Iran and Azerbaijan are both Shi’a-majority countries, Tehran crossed sectarian lines to support Armenia in the first Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, over concerns that an Azerbaijani victory would lead Iranian Azeris to attempt secession. In 2020, as Turkey openly provided sophisticated military support to the Azerbaijanis, Iran remained neutral, but watched with trepidation. When Erdogan recited a poem in December 2020 calling for the reunification of both sides of Azerbaijan, it created a firestorm in Iran and drew dueling accusations from Turkish and Iranian officials.
Another diplomatic row occurred between Tehran and Ankara in February 2021 when Turkish authorities arrested an Iranian diplomat, Mohammad Reza Naserzadeh, accused of instigating the killing of an Iranian dissident on Turkish soil. Iranian Foreign Ministry dismissed the Turkish accusation as “baseless,” although Iran is no stranger to such operations on foreign soil (and, furthermore, until very recently, Ankara had been criticized for turning a blind eye to the assassination and kidnapping of Iranian dissidents by Islamic Republic authorities on Turkish soil).
Finally, ahead of Turkey’s plans to carry out military operations in Iraq’s Sinjar region in a bid to eliminate the PKK’s presence, Iran-backed militias issued (ultimately futile) threats against Ankara. Sinjar, located in northwestern Iraq, is a strategically important region used by Iran-backed militias. Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, was reported as saying, “We do not accept at all, be it Turkey or any other country, to intervene in Iraq militarily or advance or have a military presence in Iraq.” Turkey’s envoy to Iraq, Fatih Yildiz, shot back, saying, “[Masjedi is] the last person to lecture Turkey” about respecting Iraq’s borders, given the presence of Iraqi militias openly controlled from Tehran.
For the time being, trade relations, historically the main driver of the Turkish-Iranian relationship, have been at their lowest level due to the effects of Trump-era sanctions on Iran. In 2019, for example, Turkey’s oil imports from Iran decreased by 63%, while Iran’s capacity to purchase Turkish goods was also significantly reduced. However, in spite of American sanctions, trade relations are likely to continue, especially in light of the recent nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, which could pave the way for sanctions on Iran to be eased.
In summary, recent events in Turkey and the neighboring region have led Erdogan’s government to rethink its foreign policy. At the same time, a politically and economically weakened Tehran has pursued better relations with Ankara, with the end result that the two nations are experiencing a historic détente. However, given the long rivalry between Turkey and Iran and the contrasting foreign policies and regional agendas of the two states, bilateral relations are likely to face obstacles in the foreseeable future. While trade ties are certain to continue, the honeymoon between Tehran and Ankara seems to be reaching its end.
Vahid Yücesoy is PhD candidate in Political Science/International Relations at Université de Montréal, Canada. He is a specialist of Iranian and Turkish politics and political economy.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.