When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held “strategic talks” with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran today, three topics topped the agenda: Iraq, Syria and trade. The two sides agreed to assist the Baghdad government in preventing Iraqi Kurdistan from declaring independence, continue to cooperate closely in Syria to reduce violence and fight terrorism, and triple the current volume of trade between the two countries in the near future. Despite concrete steps by the Iranian and Turkish governments to reconcile their differences and bolster bilateral relations, however, divergent interests and a history of distrust will likely continue to hamper the two Middle Eastern rivals' efforts to transform their transactional partnership into a strategic alliance.
Opposing Kurdish Independence
In a meeting with Erdogan, Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters in Iran, described the September 25 Kurdish independence vote as an act of “treason’ and stressed that “Iran and Turkey should do everything possible to counter” Iraqi Kurdish leaders’ quest for independence. The supreme leader warned that the creation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq would adversely affect the entire region. “The Iraqi government should also deal with this issue seriously and decisively,” he added.
According to Iranian media, Erdogan, Khamenei and Rouhani all alleged that the United States and Israel were behind the Iraqi Kurdish leaders’ push for independence. “America and foreign powers cannot be trusted and they are seeking to create a ‘new Israel’ in the region,” Khamenei was quoted by Iranian official outlets as saying to Erdogan. The Turkish leader concurred: “According to undeniable documents and evidence, America and Israel have reached a consensus over the Kurdistan issue and [Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud] Barzani has committed an unforgivable mistake by holding the referendum,” Erdogan reportedly said. He added that the United States, France and Israel are seeking to divide Middle Eastern nations for political ends. “They had the same design for Syria,” Erdogan continued. Both sides agreed to join hands to counter foreign meddling in the region.
In a separate meeting earlier in the day, Rouhani and Erdogan discussed bilateral and regional issues and issued a joint statement reaffirming the two sides’ commitment to broaden their regional cooperation. Although Rouhani used a much softer language than Erdogan and Khameni while talking about the Iraqi Kurdish vote, the Iranian president told reporters after the meeting that Iran and Turkey agreed that territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria should not be compromised and that the two countries “will under no circumstances accept the issue of separatism in the region.”
Iran and Turkey are concerned that the creation of an independent Kurdish state next door would strengthen separatism within their own Kurdish communities. While a vast majority of Iranian and Turkish Kurds have shunned violence and remained loyal to their respective countries, small militant groups have launched low-intensity insurgencies and committed acts of terrorism against Iranian and Turkish governments for decades. Indeed, a short-lived independent Kurdish state was created inside Iran in 1946 and another Kurdish uprising after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran killed more than 10,000 people. The fact that thousands of Iranian Kurds defied Tehran and staged rallies in support of Iraqi Kurds’ right for autonomy has rattled the Iranian regime. Tehran is also worried that the Kurdish vote could thrust Iraq back into anarchy and chaos and undo the Islamic Republic’s gains in post-Saddam Iraq. In addition, Iranian leaders believe that Washington and Tel Aviv are supporting an independent Kurdish state to counter Iran’s influence in Iraq.
Trade was another key agenda item. The Turkish delegation visiting Tehran included several cabinet members, including the ministers of energy, economy, customs and trade, and culture and tourism. The two sides signed several trade agreements. After their meeting, Rouhani and Erdogan announced that Tehran and Ankara will take necessary measures to triple the annual volume of bilateral trade to $30 billion in the near future. The two sides also agreed to use Iranian and Turkish currencies instead of dollar for future transactions – a move that both countries hope will help shore up their declining currencies. As part of one agreement reached between the two sides, Turkey would import more gas from Iran and Tehran would facilitate more Turkish investment in Iran’s energy industry.
The amount of annual trade between Iran and Turkey had surpassed $20 billion in 2012, but it plummeted to under $10 billion last year. While most nuclear-related sanctions against Tehran were lifted in January 2016 after signing of the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, existing U.S. sanctions have deterred foreign governments and companies to do business with Iran and have limited Iran’s access to international financial system and foreign banks. To address the issue, the Iranian and Turkish delegations today discussed ways to facilitate banking relations: Iran’s Central Bank will open branches in Turkey, and Turkish Central Bank will do so in Iran. Iranian and Turkish officials have also signed new agreements to ease customs and border security restrictions to facilitate trade.
State-run Iranian media outlets were unanimously positive about the “new chapter in Iran-Turkey relations” and they stressed that Turkey is not just a significant destination for Iranian exports but it can also serve as a “gateway” for the transit of Iranian goods to Europe. Reformist-leaning media, however, remained skeptical of Turkey as a reliable, strategic partner.
Although Tehran and Ankara have lately taken concrete steps to cooperate closely on regional issues and boost bilateral trade, divergent interests and a history of mistrust are likely to continue to hinder the two countries’ transactional cooperation from turning into a strategic partnership.
Officials of both countries acknowledge their differences but maintain that they will try to manage them. “Despite friendship, cooperation and unending transactions in all spheres, there are differences of views in some areas. But the two countries have intelligently worked to manage the differences to an acceptable level so that they do not undermine bilateral ties,” Bahram Ghassemi, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said in an interview with an Iranian newspaper. He added that Tehran’s unequivocal support for Ankara after last year’s failed coup attempt changed the Turkish government’s view of its relations with the Islamic Republic. An article in Iranian outlet Fararu also pointed out that Tehran’s support for Ankara – compared to hedging responses from the United States and Europe – was a “turning point” in Turkey-Iran relations.
Some Iranian outlets, however, have cautioned that the transactional cooperation would not survive long unless Tehran and Ankara end their “geopolitical rivalry” in the region and forge a strategic relationship.
Even regarding Iraqi Kurdistan, Tehran and Ankara publicly support each other’s stance but remain skeptical about one another’s intention. Turkey has close economic and military relations with Erbil and is unlikely to cut all ties with the leadership in Iraqi Kurdistan. Such a move would harm Turkey's economic and security interests and create a vacuum that Iran may ultimately try to fill in. Similarly, many in Tehran doubt that Ankara will sustain its tough stance on Erbil. Seyed Hamid Hosseini, the head of Iran-Iraq Chamber of Commerce, said this week that Tehran must not lead regional efforts to impose a trade ban on Iraqi Kurdistan, noting that more than a quarter of Iranian exports to Iraq go to Kurdish regions. He also raised doubt about relying on Turkey. “In the battle between pride and economy, Turkey has shown that it prioritizes economic and trade issues,” he said, adding that Ankara apologized after shooting a Russian plane and normalized its trade relations with Moscow.