On June 9 and 10, 2014, there was an official visit of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Turkey. The Iranian leader held talks with Turkish President, Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan Redzhepom. He also attended a meeting of the Council of Strategic Cooperation between the two countries at the highest level. Kh.Rouhani was accompanied by Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, Minister of Oil, B.N.Zangar and the Minister of Culture, A.Dzhannati. Particular importance to this visit is attributed to the fact that, an Iranian president has not visited Turkey since 1996. For two neighboring regional powers, claiming the role of leaders in the Muslim world, and is home to a total of over 150 million people, this is unlikely to be normal.
Development of bilateral relations has been hindered by the foreign policy priorities of Tehran and Ankara. Turkey is considered a strategic ally and partner of the U.S. in the region, an active member of NATO, and Iran, is a U.S. adversary with all the ensuing consequences. Washington treated Turkey as its springboard in the struggle against the objectionable regimes, in the point of view of the West, of Iran and Syria. Not coincidentally, most recently in Turkey NATO placed additional air defences, a system known as “Patriot”. Turkey was forced to adhere to the four packages of restrictive UN sanctions and considered a lot of other sanctions of the U.S. and the EU against Iran over its nuclear program.
The election of Rouhani, a moderate and pragmatic Iranian politician, has, as a consequence, outlined a thaw in relations between Iran and the West and created the prerequisites for the development of Iranian-Turkish relations. Obviously, both Tehran and Ankara have come to understanding that there needs to be a “synchronizing of watches” on the international and regional agenda, an find common interests and common ground, strengthen mutually beneficial cooperation in trade, the economy and other fields. It should be noted that the first step in this direction was taken in late May this year, when Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan paid a visit to Tehran.
Specific attention was given to the expansion of bilateral trade and economic relations; which is expected to positively affect the development of the entire region of the Near and Middle East. According to Kh.Rouhani, “the two neighboring countries could double the volume of bilateral trade.” (Based on 2013 data, it reached 13.5 billion USD). In the coming years, much will depend on a stable growth in the supply of Iranian gas and oil to Turkey. In October last year, Turkish Energy Minister, Taner Yildiz said that his country buys from Iran annually 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas and could increase this amount if given such an opportunity. It is with this that Ankara attaches its hopes, equalizing its own balance in the import of strategic energy resources, diversification of supply routes and transit to third countries. Currently Turkey covers up to 25% of its domestic gas needs and 30% in oil supplies from Iran in the amount of 7.6 billion USD.
The construction of the new railway connecting the Persian and Oman gulfs with the Black Sea coast was also discussed. Today Iran and Turkey are connected by only one rail route, which is in need of a major refit and upgrade, hence large investment.
According to the Iranian president, the two countries have a similar stance on nuclear programs. “We believe that any country that has signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, can develop a peaceful nuclear program,” he said. However, Kh.Rouhani added, the region must be free of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. It was very clear that he was referring to Israel, which is the only one in the region to possess nuclear weapons. Tehran positively reacted to the cooling of relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv after the events of 2010 with the Turkish ship, “Mavi Marmara” of the Gaza coast.
Both sides expressed their commitment to the fight against extremism, terrorism and violence in the region. Of course, the focus of the talks in Ankara concerned the situation in Syria and the events surrounding it. Tehran is an ally of Assad and fully supports him in his struggle with the armed opposition and foreign Islamist groups. Ankara considers the regime in Damascus as illegitimate and provides territory for opposition politicians and militants used by foreign mercenaries and jihadists. The position of both the parties towards Damascus hasn’t radically changed, but the fact that the exchange of views at the highest level on the most pressing regional issue deserves attention.
Second, and no less important, is the situation in Iraq, where essentially an undeclared war between the Government of the Arab-Shiite majority, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Sunni Arab minority. This split has been of a benefit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and through special services supporting radical Islamist groups, in particular, the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”, which established its control over the part of the regions of Syria and Iraq. Strengthening regional radical Islamist groups, especially those related to “Al Qaeda” and the Wahhabis, and the destabilization of the overall situation in the region seems more annoying to Tehran and Ankara. There is a real danger that the effects of the “Arab Spring,” the chaos and violence in the region could spread to Iran and Turkey, the latter are increasingly faced with riots and protests by its citizens.
In this regard, the parties could not raise another important issue of their relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan. In recent years, Turkey and Iran recognized the region’s status as a subject of the federation with broad rights and powers and is actively developing direct links and contacts with it. The discovery in the area of hydrocarbon reserves of global significance attracted many foreign investors. Naturally, Turkey and Iran, as neighboring countries tend not to stay away from these processes. The volume of bilateral trade between Turkey and the Kurdish region of Iraq reached has reached 9 billion USD per year. Ankara has signed a 50 year contract with Erbil for the export of oil, part of which is intended for the world market through the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Iran, in turn, offered to build more pipelines for Kurdish oil to flow to Iran and continue through Iranian ports for export to other countries. Tehran plans to deliver on a barter basis to Iraq and Kurdistan oil and natural gas. It is possible that may be entered into and the threefold deal to build pipelines and export of hydrocarbons between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey. It is not ruled out that a 3-way deal will be entered for the purpose of building pipelines and exporting hydrocarbons between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey.
As such, Khassan Rouhani visit to Turkey was an important event for the region and could trigger the development of bilateral and inter-regional cooperation while improving regional security. Until recently, opponents of rapprochement between Iran and Turkey, in the form of the U.S., NATO, Israel, and Saudi Arabia managed to play the two off from one another. Of course, two regional powers remain rivals and competitors in the struggle for leadership in the Middle East, but mostly for them today, is to overcome their mutual confrontation in Syria and establish mutually beneficial economic, trade and other relations.
Stanislav Ivanov, a leading researcher at the Institute for Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Science, PH.D of History and columnist for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.