Turkey and Iran: From Competition to Cooperation?

04/24/2015 03:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

Turkey opted to keep its distance from the Middle East for decades. Yet its involvements in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) changed with the hyperactive foreign policy of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002. With this new foreign policy orientation, Turkey began to demonstrate new interest and concern for the region and its peoples. Efforts to establish a sort of common market or Schengen area among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan through increasing economic integration, free trade areas, and mutual removal of visa requirements were part of Turkey's foreign policy approach to this region. This foreign policy, which made cooperation between the countries of the region possible, also helped them to resolve or at least temporarily set aside decades-old disputes that led to enhanced peace and security in the region in the pre-Arab Spring era.

But the Arab Spring created both opportunities and challenges for the countries of the region. Well before the 2011 Arab uprisings, Iran and Saudi Arabia were in competition with each other in increasing their sphere of influence in the MENA region. The "Arab Cold War", introduced by Malcolm Kerr, in 1971 to describe inter-Arab rivalry between Arab monarchies and nationalist republics in the 1950s, resurfaced as a "new Arab Cold War" between the Saudi-led regional alignment -Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the rest of the Gulf states- and the Iran-led regional alignment -Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Qatar- during the 2006 Lebanon War and re-ignited strongly with the Arab Spring since 2011. This led to extensive intervention in the internal affairs of various states and proxy wars.

Turkey never got directly involved in the intra-regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has entered the fray in the post-Arab Spring era and increasingly found itself at opposing ends of the regional crisis. This once more resurfaced after Erdoğan's remarks on Iran and its role in Yemen.

Involvement of Turkey in the MENA region within the framework of the "zero problems with neighbors" policy based on a more Kantian perspective that made its cooperation with its neighbors possible in the pre-Arab Spring period turned into a Hobbesian perspective based on competition in the post-Arab Spring era to become more influential in organizing political life in the MENA region. Turkey's responses to the developments in the region since 2011 met with a capability-expectation gap. Turkey increasingly shifted towards sectarian attachments on its foreign policy approach to the MENA region by gradually abandoning its mediation and economy-based efforts.

The increase in Iran's regional influence in the post-Arab Spring era is perceived as a direct threat to Saudi Arabia's domestic stability and its regional influence, which led to an alliance of Sunni countries under the leadership of Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Turkey positioned itself supporting Saudi's claims against Iran in Yemen before President Erdoğan's official visit to Tehran.

A Rival or an Odd Couple?

The historical relationship between Iran and Turkey can be described as a rivalry with a hesitance to get involved in each other's area of influence, keeping both sides away from any wars since the Treaty of Kasr-ı Şirin signed between the Ottoman Empire and the Safavid Empire. The borders between Turkey and Iran have remained more or less the same since 1639. This understanding recently echoed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, saying "Despite differences between Turkey and Iran, the two countries have a brotherly relationship and the strong ties between Turkey and Iran cannot even be questioned." Despite different views on Syria, Yemen and Iraq and their rivalry for influence in the MENA region, the two countries signed eight economic, trade and cultural cooperation agreements. A balanced rivalry between Iran and Turkey, which is the outcome of pragmatic approach, has prevented the disruption of this relationship again.

The conciliatory tone regarding the developing violence in Yemen, which draws a sharp contrast with how Turkish and Iranian officials described the situation before the visit, might be explained by various reasons from the Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby's remarks that criticizes Iran, Turkey and Israel over "interference" in the countries of the region at the Arab League Summit of 2015 in Egypt; to Egypt's decision not to renew the sea and land transit transportation agreement for roll-on/roll-off (Ro-Ro) ships with Turkey expired on April 23rd, 2015 that blocks the transportation route for Turkey's exports to the Gulf (transportation on Syria, Iraq and Egypt is not possible) and leaves Iran as the only alternative route; to Saudi Arabia and its allies' approach towards the Muslim Brotherhood. Whatever the reason, it paved the way to a more conciliatory approach and an opportunity and possibility for Turkey to play a mediator role in the crisis between the Sunni axis and the Shiite axis with another non-Arab Sunni country, Pakistan.

It would be a better opportunity for Turkey as a regional power to turn back to this role for stability and security, which are quite absent in this region. It is questionable whether Turkey alone can play a facilitator role in achieving peace in Yemen, but as suggested by a Pakistani minister a couple of days ago, it can still take a place in mediation efforts not only in Yemen but also in the other areas in conflict. A shift to a conciliatory approach is a promising step that can create an environment in which the win-win outcome for the entire region and its people is most likely to emerge. Saudi Arabia's decision to end airstrikes and to launch a political solution in Yemen, which was also welcomed by Iran, is a significant step that has the potential to facilitate attaining peace in the region needed.

Democracy at Home, a Conciliatory Approach in the MENA Region?

Turkey needs to readjust its foreign policy to the emergent realities of the region. As Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan said at the B20-World Bank Group meeting on "Towards a Global Steering Mechanism" held on April 17th, 2015 at the IFC, "The rule of law and high quality democracy is at the essence of a predictable business environment." Turkey has a general election on June 7th, 2015. A new beginning is needed for Turkey not only to put back on track its democratic reform process, which was highly embraced at the beginning of the 2000s, but also to call back its conciliatory foreign policy approach to the region, which can contribute to the stability, peace and prosperity of the MENA region.