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Turkey Iran Relations

As two neighboring countries, Turkey and Iran share a long border, unchanged for almost 400 years. In addition to the Turkish Embassy in Tehran, Turkey has consulates general in Tabriz, Orumiyeh and Mashhad. Iran is represented in Turkey by its embassy in Ankara, and its consulates general in Istanbul, Trabzon and Erzurum. The Turkish-Iranian High Level Cooperation Council (HLCC) which was established in 2014, has provided a structured basis to the Turkish-Iranian relations.

Ataturk's foreign policy, which had as its main object the preservation of the independence and integrity of the new republic, was careful, conservative, and successful. By the end of 1925, friendship treaties had been negotiated with fifteen states. Turkey also entered into a nonaggression treaty with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran in 1937.

The 499-kilometer boundary with Iran was confirmed by treaty in 1937. The terrain's ruggedness is accentuated in the eastern part of the country, where two mountain ranges converge into a lofty region with a median elevation of more than 1,500 meters, which reaches its highest point along the borders with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. Turkey's highest peak, Mount Ararat (Agri Dagi) about 5,166 meters high is situated near the point where the boundaries of the four countries meet.

Iran and Iraq were at war with each other from 1980 to 1988, and Turkey was able to reap economic dividends by remaining strictly neutral with respect to that conflict. Nevertheless, the government continued to believe that Turkey's national interests would be served best by strengthening ties to Western Europe. On several fronts, Turkey suffered a number of setbacks in the early 1990s. A critical one was the embargo on Iraq. Because of it, Turkey lost a huge export market as well as fees for allowing Iraqi oil to pass through a pipeline on Turkish territory. In addition, Iran, a major trading partner in the 1980s, reoriented its trade directly with Europe and Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In April 1992, in his first year as prime minister, Suleyman Demirel traveled to Central Asia to promote Turkey as a political and developmental model for the Central Asian states. He explicitly represented Turkey not only as a successful example of what an independent Turkic country could achieve but also as a more appropriate model than the Islamic alternative offered by Iran, which he perceived as Turkey's main rival for influence in the region. In practice, however, Turkey lacked adequate economic resources to play the pivotal role in Central Asia to which it aspires. Because Iran also had insufficient capital for aid to and investment in the region, the anticipated rivalry between Iran and Turkey had failed by the mid-1990s to develop into a serious contest. By the time President Ozal followed Demirel's trip with his own tour of the region in April 1993, Turkey recognized, albeit reluctantly, that Russia, rather than Turkey or Iran, had emerged as the dominant political force in Central Asia.

Suleyman Demirel had served as prime minister for less than eighteen months when the unexpected death of Ozal in April 1993 provided the opportunity for him to succeed to the presidency. Demirel and his colleagues had a special interest in Central Asia, and they hoped that Turkey could serve as a role model for the new Turkic-speaking states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. However, from a geographic perspective, these new countries were closer to Iran than to Turkey, and officials frequently expressed concern about suspected Iranian intentions in Central Asia. Throughout 1992 the Demirel administration perceived Turkey to be engaged in a competitive race with Iran for regional influence. However, by the time Demirel became president in May 1993, most officials had come to realize that neither their country nor Iran had sufficient resources for such a competition.

Turkey's religious revival had foreign policy implications because the tarikatlar tended to link with religious groups in other Muslim countries. Turkish political leaders feared the influence of neighboring Iran, where an Islamic government replaced the secular regime in 1979, and since 1987 have tended to blame incidents of religious violence on Iranian agents. However, Turkey's religious activists are Sunni Muslims who tend to display suspicion and prejudice toward Shia Muslims who make up more than 90 percent of the Iranian population and there was scant evidence to support the existence of significant ties between the Turkish Sunni and Iran.

In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds attempted to throw off the rule of Saddam Husayn in northern Iraq, following encouragement by United States officials. The uprising, which failed to receive support from the allied coalition, was quickly crushed, leading a massive number of Iraqi Kurdish civilians to seek safety in Iran and Turkey.

By 1994 the government claimed that as many as 2 million Iranians were living in Turkey, a figure that most international organizations considered to be grossly exaggerated. Turkey was one of the few countries that Iranians may enter without first obtaining a visa; authorities believed that the relative ease of travel from Iran to Turkey encouraged many Iranians to visit Turkey as tourists, or to use Turkey as a way station to obtain visas for the countries of Europe and North America. Consequently, as many as 2 million Iranians actually may transit Turkey including multiple reentries for many individuals in a given year. Specialized agencies of the European Union and the United Nations that dealt with issues of migrants and refugees believe a more realistic figure of the number of Iranians who live in Turkey, and did not have a residence in Iran or elsewhere, was closer to 50,000.

Both Iran and Russia were trying to extend or maintain their respective influence in Azerbaijan and Central Asia. Initially, Turkish leaders seemed to welcome the prospect of competition with Iran for influence in the region, and they confidently asserted the superiority of their secular state over Iran's Islamic model. By the end of 1993, however, Turkey perhaps out of concern about Russian intentions began to stress the need to work with Iran through multilateral regional arrangements such as the Economic Cooperation rganization.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogans Islamic-conservative government conceived the Arab Spring as an opportunity to expand Turkey's influence in the entire region and to enter a reliable alliance with the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. The plan clearly went wrong.

Turkey's president warned 30 March 2015 it would not tolerate Iran dominating the Middle East, amid growing concerns inside the country that it will be sucked into a sectarian conflict with its neighbor. It was a very new policy now, Turkey pointing at Iran and directly taking Iran as an adversary. It meant that they were getting closer to the Saudis and the Emirates and becoming a full-fledged member of the regional Sunni alliance. The policy of not intervening, or not pointing at Iran, was over. Erdogan's ruling AK Party is Sunni Islamist in orientation, and Ankara increasingly viewed the region through the prism of the Sunni-Shi'ite divide.

Russia, Syria and Iran agreed at a trilateral meeting in Moscow in December 2016 on a declaration that could lead to a peace deal in war-torn Syria. The most important feature of the declaration between the three countries is the possibility of implementing the plan on the ground. This factor set it apart from all of its predecessors because the three countries are the most effective players in Syria. But Turkey was still very uncomfortable with Iran creating a sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq by supporting varied militias.




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Page last modified: 13-09-2021 13:49:10 ZULU