With the talks between the P5+1 and Iran finally coming to an conclusion, a decades old mechanism to change the Middle Eastern balance of power in disadvantage of Iran is nearing its end. The losers in this bargain from a regional point of view are all powers that benefited from the United States containment policy during the last 35 years, thus practically all major Sunni actors in the region, most notably the Gulf States and Turkey. And no, Israel is not one of the losers, despite the fact that some policy makers want to sell it like that. Turkey’s relationship with Iran goes way back and is minted by a centuries old struggle for influence in the region, a similarly old struggle between the two denominations of Islam and as a result of these two a development of two completely different independent cultures. Yet, they have a lot in common as well: both have about the same population, both have a vast Islamic majority with many different manifestations, both struggle politically with their large respective Kurdish minorities, both share a history of huge empires which collapsed and saw the emergence of a secular political elitist system in a similar timeframe. But the countries took decisively different steps after the end of the “old order” after the First World War. While Turkey gradually shifted towards more popular political participation, Iran underwent an authoritarian shift, which finally resulted in a popular uprising forming the current state of affairs.
From a classical realist understanding all of this wouldn’t matter much as both states simply compete in the balance of power system, in this case of the Middle East. Both are mid-powers with similar military capabilities, although arguably Turkey would have the edge for the reason of clear economic superiority. And it is true: both actors balance each other, at times on a frightening level, like during for both countries struggling times from 1979 to 1983, in which both states saw a regime change – in complete opposite directions though. Neither state was able to clearly dominate bilateral relations – arguably for the past few hundred years. But there was no major war between the two political entities since the treaty of Erzurum in 1823 despite all the turmoil the region went through during that time. Again: from a realist perspective that has to be correlated to the functioning balance of power system as no actor was able to clearly dominate the other or there was a hegemon – like Britain and France – that kept up the balance. Adding to this understanding the two neoclassical realist variables “domestic constraints” and “elite perceptions”, one could argue in both ways: due to the strong cultural linkage of the two countries resulting from the fact that they emerged from the Turkic Seljuk Empire and it was Persians that let the Turks to adopt Islam. On the other side there is the sectarian rift and the centuries old struggle for power between Turks and Persians, yet again expressed in the current state of affairs in which Turkey is a key supporter of Sunni Islam in the region, and Iran the key supporter for Shia interests. Thus elite perceptions and domestic constrains in both countries can be interpreted in two ways, favouring peaceful relations or not. Given the rather recent developments the latter seems more likely though.
Another realist perspective on the issue is the one of threat perception. Both countries share a 500 km long border, as stated already similar aggregative powers, similar offensive capabilities and arguably similar offensive (or precisely not) intentions. Thus it is clear that both observe each other with suspicion, which best is displayed in parts of Turkey’s elites (mainly secular hardliners) perception of Iran as an adversary. But then again: relations have been more or less peaceful during the last 192 years. The answer why relations are nonetheless peaceful as complex as the prior description would suggest. Overall, Iran has never been perceived as the major threat for Turkey ever since Russia held that position starting in the mid-18th century, the situation in Iran being similar. Domestic developments combined with British and French foreign policies – particularly the strong British influence in Persia up until the 1950s kept relations at a low, but stable level. The Kemalist foreign policy from the early 1920s on pursued an isolation towards the Middle East and a timid approximation towards the west while emphasising Turkey’s independence. Iran during that time underwent a comparable “westernization” with much less independence though, as Russia and Britain kept a key edge in the country’s affairs. During that time no situation emerged in which Iran and Turkey would have to balance massively against each other, nor did have either of the states have the intentions, let alone resources to do so. On the contrary, Tehran under the respective Shah’s had relatively good relations with Ankara, as Atatürk’s state served as some kind of role model.
After 1945 both states (gradually) became close allies of the United States, keeping relations between Turkey and Iran at a low, but timid level once again. It was not until 1979 when Iran experienced a popular regime change and Turkey some month later exactly the opposite: a military coup that brought into power a not only secular, but anti-religious military caretaker government that stood strongly opposed to the new Iranian regime. Ironically just a few years after these events Turkey started to undergo an unprecedented opening towards its Middle Eastern neighbourhood under the stewardship of Turgut Özal, which was further empowered by the end of the Cold War. With a short timeout in between, this opening was further continued by the respective governments, most notably though by the AKP since 2002. Despite the harsh international sanctions regime, trade between Turkey and Iran increased manifold and stands at a respectable 13,7 billion dollars in 2014, a number that is likely to multiply in the coming years, as the sanctions are being lifted. Iran with its vast natural resources is a key actor in Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with our neighbours” policy, shifting the elite perceptions clearly towards low-tension relations with Iran. Combined with the de-facto – and increasingly de-jure – removal of the military as a political force, Erdoğan removed the biggest remaining domestic constrain hindering good relations with Tehran.
The current state of affairs is dire in the Middle East, which experiences its so far strongest manifestation of what the great Fred Halliday once called the greater west-Asian crisis, since starting in 1991. The second U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003 triggered a series of events that ultimately led to the current sectarian rift in the Middle East in which every states tries to influence the fragile balance of power. In order to understand the relations between Iran and Turkey one must look beyond that sectarian dichotomy though. The struggle for power always happens between states or coalitions of states, never between ideological viewpoints. Currently Turkey is actively – way too actively for many – balancing with the other comparable powers in the region: Iran, Saudi Arabia and increasingly again Egypt. But Turkey also recognises that it cannot engage in military actions (at least directly) to improve its power positioning in the region as there are way too many constrains, starting from the U.S. interests to the adversary it would reap in the Middle East and beyond. The same is true for Iran, which has much more room for manoeuvre though and arguably is much more engaged in direct military confrontation in the current conflict as well. The current Iran deal will empower Iran and its allies in the region, including Bashir al-Assad, much to the discomfort of Ankara, making it a geopolitical loser of the deal. Nonetheless, Turkey has much to gain from the deal. Increasing trade with Iran can give the Turkish economy the boost it so desperately needs, also leading to further improvement of ties that suffered due to balancing activities, like with the central government in Baghdad. By de facto starting to make a new ally, the U.S. raised the bar for Turkey, but also other allies in the region, which could lead to either better relations or further alienation – the letter seeming rather unlikely in the case of Turkey.