Earlier this summer, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani paid a very public two-day visit to a surprising locale: Ankara, Turkey. The June trip — the first of its kind in nearly 20 years — represented a significant evolution of the political ties between Iran and Turkey.
In recent times, relations between Ankara and Tehran have been troubled on a number of fronts (from energy to Turkey’s role in NATO’s emerging missile shield). However, no issue has roiled ties between the two countries more than Syria.
Iran, a longtime backer of the Assad regime in Damascus, has aided the Syrian government extensively since the start of the civil war there some 3 years ago. Turkey, meanwhile, has become a key source of political support (not to mention logistics and financial assistance) for the disparate opposition factions now arrayed against Mr. Assad — including extreme Islamist ones. These conflicting positions have deeply affected the health of ties between Tehran and Ankara over the past three-plus years.
It was not always this way. Before the outbreak of Syria’s “Arab Spring” in March of 2011, Turkey and Iran boasted tactical alignment on a broad set of issues. Between 2000 and 2010, trade between the two countries grew tenfold, topping $10 billion. (Economic ties have risen steadily since, despite political disagreements, and now stand at some $22 billion annually). Iran and Turkey also both backed the Palestinian Hamas movement, and Ankara emerged as a public backer of Iran’s persistent quest for nuclear capability. Then the start of the Syrian civil war created new — and deep — divisions between the two.
Now, things appear to be changing once again. During Mr. Rouhani’s June visit, cooperative rhetoric abounded. The Iranian president and his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, sang the praises of a revitalized Iranian-Turkish alliance, and lauded its potential contributions to everything from combating terrorism to securing a nuclear weapons-free Middle East. “Our relations are not just about two countries,” Mr. Gul said. “They are important for the region and the whole world.”
The reconciliation didn’t stop there. The two signed nearly a dozen cooperative agreements, on everything from finance to tourism to communications. They also reiterated their joint commitment to increasing bilateral trade to $30 billion by next year, an objective formally set during Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Tehran back in January.
The thaw is very much a sign of the times. Iran is in the midst of a historic rapprochement with the West as a result of its nuclear negotiations with the so-called “P5+1” powers — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the U.S., Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France) plus Germany — and is already reaping the dividends. Since last fall, a slackening of Western sanctions has made the once-rickety Iranian economy an increasingly attractive destination for Turkish goods and investment — an opening that both the Turkish government and businesses are eager to exploit. Iran, meanwhile, is hoping to attract precisely this kind of attention as a way of shedding its long-held pariah status and returning to “business as usual” with the region and the world. A stronger partnership with Turkey, which now ranks as one of the world’s most dynamic economies, would certainly help accomplish this goal.
The newfound political warmth may also indicate a larger reorientation taking place in Turkish policy. In the years since the start of the Syrian civil war, the Turkish government’s support for various opposition forces operating on the Syrian battlefield has come at an increasingly high political and economic cost, as Mr. Erdogan’s government has come under intense criticism both at home and abroad for its purported role as a de facto financier of terrorism. A mending of fences with Syria’s most important strategic partner may, therefore, serve as a signal that the Turkish government is beginning to question the benefits of its Syria policy — and starting to slowly amend it.
Since then, other opportunities for synergy have arisen. The current turmoil in Iraq provides another potential point of convergence, given that both countries have a vested interest in defanging the radical Islamic State before it becomes a truly regional threat. At the same time, the two are also grappling with similar policy conundrums stemming from the growing assertiveness of their respective Kurdish minorities.
Cumulatively, these changes provide the basis for an Iranian-Turkish reset, as Ankara and Tehran each attempt to seize the moment to improve their respective regional positions. The result could mark a new stage in one of the Middle East’s most potentially significant strategic partnerships.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, based in Washington, D.C. Nika Madyoon is a researcher at the council.