Iran: Turkey’s next door, but “far-away”, neighbour

Iran: Turkey’s next door, but “far-away”, neighbour

15:16 17 October in ARTICLES, In English, PUBLICATIONS

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MEHMET ÖĞÜTÇÜ | 

Relations between Turkey and Iran will likely come under the limelight soon as the speculations intensify about an imminent US attack against Iran and possible role Turkey could be forced to play in it.
The two countries are so close to one another in geography, history, ethnicity and culture, while at the same time so distant in fundamental political/security priorities and economic/trade co-operation – one can hardly come across two such countries in the world. It is more likely than not that the gap between Turkey and this “far-away” country on its doorstep could further widen in the period ahead.

The hard-liner front, led by the U.S. whose president has vowed to hit Iran before his term of office expires, is bent on preventing Iran from what it wants to achieve: nuclear weapons capability in a few years time through its uranium enrichment programme (a process that can make fuel for power stations or, if greatly enriched, material for a nuclear bomb), now believed to be in its final stage. Tehran insists its programme is for civil use only, but Western countries suspect Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.

The widespread feeling is that the numerous UN Security Council resolutions adopted against Iran whose nuclear ambitions have been verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency are inconclusive. The last UN deadline of 21 February had come and gone. Washington wants to be seen as having exhausted all possible avenues for compromise with Tehran before considering seriously “other options” including the scenarios that envisage direct military strikes at identified targets. There is a broad disapproval in Middle East nations and the EU of a nuclear Iran. Even Russia and China, traditional allies of Iran, display discontent for another country in the exclusive nuclear club to which they belong. These unfolding developments will likely force Turkey to take willingly or unwillingly an active part in the Iranian equilibrium.

Despite the occasional tensions that occur from time to time, bilateral relations between Iran and Turkey have generally been based on mutual recognition of the interests for a long time. It is worth bearing in mind that there has been no war between the two countries since the signing of the Qasr-e-Shirin Peace Treaty in 1639 – more than four centuries. They both have stood the test of time as the two medium-size, rival powers in the region.

The tangled relationship between the rulers and people of Asia Minor (Turkey) and Persia (Iran) is as old as history, beginning from the days when modern-day western Turkey formed the outpost of the Persian Empire. There was continuous rivalry between the Roman/Byzantine Empire based in Anatolia with its capital at Constantinople and Sasanian Empire of Persia. Both fought for the control of Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq. But in 7th century Muslim Arabs from the sands of Arabia broke through and converted Persia to Islam. Later the torch was taken by Seljuks and Ottomans who Turkified and Islamised Asia minor and beyond into Europe. The Sunni Ottomans and the Shia Safavids of Persia fought for the control of Iraq, but the Ottomans finally prevailed.

In modern times, Turkey’s founder Kemal Ataturk and Iran’s ruler Reza Shah shared a goal for westernisation and modernisation. After the Second World War, to protect themselves against the Soviet Union, both Turkey and Iran joined the U.S.-led military alliances, like the short lived Baghdad pact with Pakistan (that included Britain with the United States as an observer), the Central Treaty Organization, and an economic agreement, the Regional Cooperation for Development. Iran withdrew from both agreements after the 1979 Khomeini Revolution.

Nevertheless, Iran’s economic ties with Turkey have expanded significantly. Both countries have become important trade partners with Turkey becoming the major transit route for goods travelling by truck and rail between Europe and Iran. The oil wealth made Iran rich but brought other problems and saw the end of the Pehlavi dynasty and incoming of Islamic revolution in 1979. It made secular Turkey very apprehensive but Iran was engaged by Iraq helped by neighbouring Sunni Gulf states and western powers. During the Iran and Iraq war in 1980s, while almost land locked Iraq was Turkey’s 2nd largest trading partner, Iran was not far behind. Turkey adopted more or less a neutral line. But soon the rivalry between Turkey and Iran emerged again but this time in Central Asia.

The bilateral relations have remained stable since then including most of the republican era from 1923. Indeed, the Friendship Agreement signed between the two countries in Iran on April 22, 1926 referred to friendship, neutrality and non-aggression. Under the same agreement, the parties also pledged to take joint action against the groups that will threaten peace and stability and resort to change their regimes, a tacit reference to the Kurds in both countries.

The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who, after receiving Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan in October 2007, stressed that the destinies of Iran, Turkey and Iraq were intertwined, that the external enemies were planning to establish domination over the countries in the region under a long term plan, and that these enemies were at unease with the rapprochement taking place among neighbouring countries. Babacan’s colleague Mottaki similarly pointed to the “Zionist regime” and the US as the “real perpetrators of the terrorist actions” in the region, underlying that trilateral regional co-operation was imperative. It sounded as though he was trying to remind Turkey of its obligations under the 1926 Agreement.

There have been considerable ups and downs in the bilateral relations since the introduction of an Islamic regime following the 1979 revolution. Both countries are to blame for the deterioration of relations. On the Iranian side, the attempts to export its regime, the decade-long Iran-Iraq war, the probable involvement of Iranian secret services in the assassination of some prominent Turkish intellectuals, heavy armament of Iran, procurement of long range missiles, attempts to boost the influence of the Shiites in the region, manipulations through the proxy groups in Lebanon and the Gulf region, ambivalent stance vis-à-vis the Kurdish question and most recently defiance against the international community in relation to the nuclear crisis – they are all major obstacles to better ties with Turkey. The cancellation of the airport and telecommunication tenders won by the Turkish companies in Iran has only added salt to the wounds.

The Kurdish problem has presented a special issue between Iran and Turkey since the beginning of the 20th century. Kurdish insurrections in Turkey in 1925 and in 1929-1930 had caused many Kurdish tribes to cross the border into Iran, creating claims between Ankara and Tehran. This problem became more serious after the Shah’s policies in northern Iraq in the 1970s. The Kurdish policies of Iran and Turkey (and also of Iraq and Syria) have influenced each other. Very large areas on both sides of the border are inhabited by Kurds.

In the course of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran actively assisted Iraqi Kurds, both in their insurrection against the Baghdad regime and as instruments of irregular warfare to help Iranian troops against Iraq along the border. Iran did not want the establishment of a Kurdish state in the region but rather used the Kurds for tactical purposes in order to open another front against Iraq. However, Turkey saw Iranian manipulations as a dangerous game that might intensify Kurdish nationalism and subvert Turkey.

From an Iranian standpoint, Turkey’s Western orientation, reluctance and inability to stand against Brussels and Washington to protect its interest, and providing refuge to the Iranian regime opponents (i.e. Mujaheddin-e Khalq) in Turkey were damaging the relations. The Islamic Revolution had left about 4 million Iranian refugees spread around the world and a large number went to or through Turkey. Estimates differ outlandishly. Some put the figure as low as 250,000, others as high as 1 million. A better estimate might be 600,000 to 800,000. That huge number of Iranian people inside Turkey posed major threats to Turkish domestic stability and its relations with Iran. Sunni prejudices against the predominantly Shia Iran certainly play a role too.

The Tehran regime has always been concerned about Turkey’s influence over the large Azeri-origin population (20-25 percent of the population). The supreme Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khameini is an Azeri Turk and by tradition Azeri Turks become the chief of the Iran’s armed forces. Iran has done its best to block Turkey’s eastern moves to link with its Central Asian brethren by closely cooperating with Russia and Armenia.

Turkey’s determination not to allow its territories to be used against Iran was welcome by the Iranian side. Yet, Iran’s defying bluntly and persistently the established international order does not help by any means Turkey’s efforts to bridge the gap between Tehran and Western capitals. It has actually attracted so much attention from the external powers on the region by acting recklessly and beyond its military, economic and political might.

Because of the call to wipe out Israel from the earth, the attempts to control a region which is home to two-third of the oil reserves in the world by inciting the Shiites in the Gulf region, the threats against the free passage of ships through the Strait of Hormuz, its becoming a “bridgehead” for China and Russia to project power in the Middle East, proxy wars through Hezbollah and Hamas, its expanding sphere of influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington’s policy to curb Iran, isolate it in the international system and even to resort to military options is no longer viewed as “non-option”.

One of the scenarios discussed calls for a US aerial attack on the selected Iranian targets including nuclear facilities before they become operational. Although the US insists it is not planning to attack, and is trying to persuade Tehran to stop uranium enrichment, as a fallback plan, senior officials at Central Command in Florida have already selected their target sets inside Iran. US contingency plans for air strikes on Iran extend beyond nuclear sites (i.e. uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, facilities at Isfahan, Arak and Bushehr) and include most of the country’s military infrastructure. Any such attack – if ordered – would target Iranian air bases, naval bases, missile facilities and command-and-control centres. The targets that will be destroyed to paralyze the energy and communications infrastructure have already been identified.

The intelligence work to take this action, it seems, has been completed. The trigger for such an attack reportedly includes any confirmation that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon – which it denies. Alternatively, a high-casualty attack on US forces in neighbouring Iraq could also trigger a bombing campaign if it were traced directly back to Tehran. Long range B2 stealth bombers would drop so-called “bunker-busting” bombs in an effort to penetrate the Natanz site, which is buried some 25m underground. Such an attack would generate catastrophic consequences. It would backfire badly by probably encouraging the Iranian government to develop a nuclear weapon in the long term.

All reports indicate that the US military actions against Iran will be taken before the presidential election in 2009. The possibility of Israel acting if Washington is constrained to do so is also high on the agenda. Israeli deputy prime minister and minister of strategic affairs Avigdor Lieberman declared that Israel might not wait for the approval of the international community to attack Iran. “We will have to face the Iranians alone, because Israel cannot remain with arms folded, waiting patiently for Iran to develop non-conventional weapons”, he said. Such an attack would not be the first of its kind: In fact, Israel had launched an aerial attack on Iraq’s Osirak Nuclear Reactor in 1981. In response, the deputy commander of Iran’s air force said last September that plans have been drawn up to bomb Israel if it attacks Iran.

Let’s make no mistake: Iran is neither Iraq nor Afghanistan. The ramifications of an attack on Iran will be for sure far-reaching for the region in particular and the US in general. Washington will not find it easy to launch military attack on Iran given its often misguided intelligence and less than impressive track-record in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran, a much stronger country than these two states, made it clear that it would be unhesitant to use its military and energy cards. Further, the European Union which keeps calling for a constructive dialogue with Iran may not join the US in a possible military action. Similarly, Russia and China will not let Tehran, their trusted allies, be removed from the Middle East chest board by force. Even though the Gulf countries are intimidated by Iran because of its possible retaliatory strikes and their own Shia population, they are not keen on the US resorting to an armed intervention.

Like Iran’s main trading partners in the EU, Turkey has been under heavy and ongoing US pressure to cut its economic ties with Iran. One primary area concerns energy supplies. Iran’s energy endowment and the world energy security concerns are among the key reasons why some countries prefer to take a relatively lenient approach vis-à-vis Iran.

As a “regional energy superpower”, Iran hosts ten percent of the proven oil reserves and fifteen percent of the natural gas reserves in the world. Yet, it is unable to effectively exploit its own resources – it hardly meets the domestic demand and the exports fall far short of its huge potential. Iran produces about 4 million barrels of crude oil per day (mbd): 2.5 mbd out of this amount is exported to the Asian markets via the Strait of Hormuz. The annual natural gas production is 84 billion cubic meters; it fails to make exports because of the growing domestic consumption and limited investments, particularly in the giant South Pars fields.

Iran has the potential to control the “Energy Corridor” which stretches from Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan to eastern Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Oman. It is in competition with Turkey, which aspires to become a regional hub for the Central Asian/Caspian/Russian and Middle Eastern hydrocarbon exports.

There is also potential for co-operation between Turkey and Iran as Tehran remains the second largest natural gas supplier (20 percent) for Turkey after Gazprom. The 2,577 km long natural gas pipeline, completed in 2001, between the two countries stretches from Tabriz to Ankara. Under the gas agreement signed on August 30, 1996 between Turkey and Iran, 30 million cubic meter natural gas each day should be pumped to Turkey whereas there have been sudden supply cuts particularly in the winter times. By choking off the gas stream, particularly in winter, Iran has been sending a not-so-subtle message to its neighbour to stay out of any Western efforts to rein in its disputed nuclear programme.

Iran and Turkey signed a preliminary agreement in July 2007 to pump Iranian gas to Europe via Turkey, a move that will open a new export market for Iran’s massive reserves. Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh said the memorandum of understanding (MOU) included an agreement to pump gas from Turkmenistan to Turkey via Iran and Tehran’s approval for Ankara to develop the phases 22, 23 and 24 of Iran’s south Pars gas field.

This MOU is designed to allow the transit of Iran’s gas to Europe via Turkey and let Turkmenistan’s gas be exported to Europe through Iran’s soil. The proposed Nabucco pipeline project that will cross Turkey is backed by the European Union partly as a means to diversify away from reliance on Russia by gaining access to Central Asian gas. The pipeline, running across Turkey to Hungary and Austria through the eastern Balkans, will eventually be able to carry 31 billion cubic metres a year of gas from producers in Central Asia to big consuming countries in Europe.

Turkey’s increasing energy co-operation with Iran has been viewed by Washington as “troubling”. “Now is not the time for business as usual with Iran. We urge all of our friends and allies, including Turkey, to not reward Iran by investing in its oil and gas sector, while Iran continues to defy the United Nations Security Council by continuing its nuclear research for a weapons capability”, said a White House spokesperson.

Ankara cannot afford staying idly on the sidelines and await a fait accompli from Washington or TelAviv. If the US decides to strike the Iranian territories itself -which will turn the Middle East into a hell once again with implications for the political and geographical map of this region-it is highly probable that Washington will ask Turkey’s co-operation for use of the jointly operated bases and immediate closure of the borders to trade and human traffic.

Further, it may also ask the Turkish authorities to back up the military action by way of its trump cards at discretion, including its support for Turkish operations against the PKK, continued financial aid in such a gloomy global economic environment, and helping hand to the Turkish aspiration to become a regional energy hub between Eurasia/Middle East and Europe. Given that the AK Party government is currently facing, serious domestic and international challenges, it is feared that Ankara will be in a very difficult position to resist Washington’s attempts.

In March 2008, the US Vice-President Dick Cheney already announced during his visit to Turkey that the US Administration was considering Turkey as the third leg of the missile shield system which will also include Poland and Czech Republic; the projected shield will serve as a defence against the Iranian (and Northern Korean) long-range missiles. Cheney’s last visit to Turkey was in 2002 in the run-up to the Iraq war to ask support from Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit for the invasion. He gave the signal that the option of a military intervention in Iran was still on the table, but did not talk openly about these plans. Instead, he mentioned the sanctions at the UN Security Council and emphasized the need to isolate Iran, warning that Iran’s nuclear power threatens Turkey as well.

From whatever angle one looks, it seems almost impossible for Turkey to stay away from any growing row between Iran and Washington. Turkey will be frequently reminded of the cost of its ambivalent attitude before and during the Iraqi invasion vis-à-vis the persistent US requests for co-operation. In retrospect, the rejection of the March 2003 parliamentary motion to allow US troops to use Turkish soil as a staging ground for an invasion of Iraq did not seem to have much of an impact as the US army clandestinely went ahead with its plans anyway.

A war against Iran is likely to be very unpopular among Turks, but this time the Turkish public appear to be too distracted by domestic crisis exploding one after another and divided to take the threat seriously until the last minute. Hence, the Turkish leadership has to make its own assessments considering different scenarios based on its available and realistic options in an effort to hammer out a “smart” strategy that will avoid becoming a permanent enemy of Iran while at the same time joining the international community’s efforts to curb the excesses of the Iranian regime to become a nuclear power, expand the Shiite sphere of influence in the immediate neighbourhood, Gulf and Central Asia, and export its own brand of Islam and militant groups worldwide.

If it bows to US pressure a crisis with neighbouring Iran is inescapable; if it rejects right away any possibility to support the US in the event of a confrontation with Iran, this time another full-fledged crisis between Turkey and the US could be unavoidable. Ankara may decide that it has learned from the punishment inflicted on it by Washington after its parliament’s decision to ban US troops from opening a northern front against Iraq from Incirlik, during the 2003 invasion, and offer logistic support. On the other hand, Turkey will not want to jeopardize its historic and good neighbourly links with Iran. Turkey is painfully aware that a change of regime in Iran and ensuing Iraq-like instability would almost inevitably lead to the creation of an independent Kurdistan.

The Turks also know that long after the dust has cleared and the Americans have disappeared over the horizon again, they will be paying for the collusion in action against Iran for many years. Therefore, Turkey needs to create different options to resist Washington’s pressures and to review its options based on the long term strategic interests. What a colossal task – it is easier said than done.

Good luck to the Turkish diplomats and generals who have to craft a well-balanced, proactive and long-termist strategy vis-à-vis Tehran, Washington, Brussels and regional capitals.