Iran and Turkey, a rollercoaster of a relationship
Prior to the escalation of the Syrian conflict, Iran and Turkey had excellent relations. The Turks supported Iran’s economy when the Islamic Republic’s relations with the West were fraught and marred by sanctions. Turkey stood with Iran and did its best to mediate between its neighbor and the Western world, even going so far as to host some Iranian nuclear talks. However, as the civil war in Syria raged on, it became more evident that both Iran and Turkey were taking different paths. Iran decided to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey decided to support Assad’s opposition and any group willing to topple the regime in Damascus.
Turkey’s recent security issues, the damaged relations with Russia (which now seem to be, at least publically, on the mend) and bitter relations with Tehran all coalesced to make the recent failed coup even more problematic for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This has led to a reshuffling of his foreign relations priorities.
A relationship with Russia
Russia seems to be of high importance as it plays a major role in Syria and has been crucial to Turkey’s tourism industry for decades. Souring relations between Ankara and Moscow, sparked by Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in November 2015, were patched over when Erdogan publically apologized and traveled to Moscow in August. It was, in fact, his first foreign visit since the failed coup attempt in July.
Erdogan met President Vladimir Putin on August 9 and despite the differences the two leaders have over Syria, they have promised to narrow diplomatic gaps and find a way to cooperate. In an interview with Russian TV, Erdogan talked about the possibility of a coalition to fight terrorism in Syria and included Russia, Iran, several Gulf states and the US in his suggestion.
Turning to Tehran
Cementing Iranian-Turkish relations also seems to be a high priority for Erdogan – in fact, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s August 12 visit to Ankara was the first by a foreign delegate since the failed coup.
Perhaps the Iranian establishment is fearful of a similar coup and the Turkish situation gave them hope that such a scenario can indeed be turned in favor of the government, especially if they strengthen their foreign relations.
Iranian President Hassan Rowhani has his own headaches related to the nuclear deal and its opponents within government. Staunch hardliners, who do not see the deal as beneficial, are yet to greenlight Rowhani’s regional engagement plans.
Various factions of the Iranian establishment, especially those who are actively involved in Syria, oppose the idea of Rowhani seeking engagement with countries who are against Assad.
However, a window of opportunity was opened up due to Erdogan’s recent fraught relationship with the West. It has allowed for more diplomatic engagement between Iran and Turkey regarding the Syrian crisis. Cooperation is also based on the fact that Turkey’s security is important for Iran’s own security and the desire to protect national borders and maintain internal peace trumps Iran’s desire to support Assad in Syria. The only way Iranian anti-terror efforts can be effective is by partnering with regional actors or the international community. As Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif noted last week, differences and disputes will be resolved through dialogue.