Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during a joint press conference following the seventh meeting of the Turkish-Iran High Level Cooperation Council in Tehran photo: AFP
Tehran has not given Ankara the green light it wanted for another military incursion into northern Syria. The meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi failed to resolve the differences over this matter. Further charging the bilateral climate, on 22 July, the Turkish security forces then arrested three Iranians on suspicion of planning to attack Israelis on Turkish territory. A month earlier, Ankara had arrested eight individuals alleged to have plotted to kidnap or kill Israeli tourists and diplomats in Turkey. Last week, a criminal court in Istanbul extended the detention of seven of those eight suspects.
Ankara and Tehran have long been at loggerheads over Syria. Iran strongly opposes Turkish military interventions in northern Syria, a position that the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reiterated on 19 July before his own meeting with Erdogan. “A military strike against Syria would destabilise the region,” he warned.
The arrest of Iranian citizens in Turkey cannot be viewed separately from the rivalry between Ankara and Tehran over Syria and places such as Yemen, Lebanon or Iraq. In the latter, for example, they support opposition political parties and their priorities are at odds with regard to Iraqi Kurdistan. On top of such political concerns, they have simmering disputes over transboundary waters, the flow of Afghan refugees from Iran into Turkey, and Turkish military operations in northern Iraq.
Tehran, for its part, is increasingly concerned by the growing levels of coordination between Turkey and Israel over various political and security matters in the Eastern Mediterranean. It sees the arrest of Iranian citizens in Turkey in this context, especially after Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Turkey in March.
Relations between Turkey and Israel have warmed considerably against the backdrop of the escalating Ukraine crisis and the reduction in Russian gas supplies to international markets. It is not surprising, therefore, that the rapprochement should usher in bilateral talks over energy cooperation between Turkey and Israel. During and after Herzog’s visit, President Erdogan took advantage of numerous occasions to mention that joint energy projects could be the key to resolving differences between the two countries on other issues. On 23 March, Turkey’s Minister of Energy Fatih Dönmez met with his Israeli counterpart Karin Elharrar over a range of mutual interests including cooperation in the energy sector: Turkey has presented itself as an alternative to Russia for delivering gas supplies to Europe.
The arrest of eight Iranians in June and three more on 19 July is indicative of a downswing in Turkish-Iranian relations that appears to coincide with the upswing in Ankara’s relations with Tel Aviv, manifestations of which are MoUs in energy cooperation and Israel’s intercession with the US go help Turkey overcome longstanding bones of contention with Washington.
But given Ankara and Tehran’s attempts to promote their commercial relations and increase the volume of bilateral trade between them, how severe is the current contretemps? Is this a blip or a longer lasting trend?
So far, there are no signs that the two sides are on a collision course or headed for rupture. In fact, they appear determined to cap the tensions and keep them from escalating beyond a point where it would be difficult to preserve cooperation especially in economic relations. Iran certainly does not appear likely to jeopardise its relations with Turkey which is in position to help transport Iranian gas to Europe. After all, Iran has also been trying to leverage the Ukrainian crisis and the European drive to wean itself off Russian gas to its advantage. In addition, Tehran sees its relationship with Turkey as a means to offset tensions with the US and to preserve a degree of manoeuvrability regionally and internationally should its relations with Washington swerve into a collision course. The economic lung that Turkey provides is also crucial to Iran in the light of ongoing Western sanctions.
Iran has traditionally been an important market for Turkish exports and the two countries aim to increase their bilateral trade to $30 billion. Given Turkey’s current economic straits, above all, it is not in Ankara’s interests to put this at risk. In addition, just as Ankara is useful to Tehran as a means to regulate its relations with Washington, so too can Tehran help Ankara absorb Western pressures on controversial issues. The two have more in common now that they are both the object of sanctions. Because of Ankara’s decision to proceed with the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile systems, the Pentagon has suspended Turkey from its F-35 programme and Washington has penalised segments of the Turkish defence sector. This is not to mention longstanding differences between Ankara and Washington over Turkey’s military incursions into northern Syria, on the one hand, and Washington’s support for the predominantly Syrian Democratic Forces, on the other.
In the final analysis, Turkey’s arrest of Iranians alleged to have plotted to kill or kidnap Israelis is symptomatic of a structural weakness in a bilateral relationship between two countries that are both regional powers and regional rivals, and often have divergent views on critical regional issues. Nevertheless, their common interests tend to prevail and keep tensions in check. This is most likely to apply in the case of the detained Iranians. The two sides will probably explore solutions even as Turkey tests the bounds of its new relationship with Israel and Iran awaits the outcome of the negotiations over its nuclear programme and related issues.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.