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Turkey and Iran: The Best of Frenemies

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By Merve Tahiroglu and Behnam Ben Taleblu

For centuries, the Ottomans and Persians led rival empires that fought for control of the Middle East. Today, the Republic of Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Iran are the successor states to that millennium-old rivalry.

The two countries are at cross-purposes in numerous regional theaters of conflict. This tension continues to embody the competitive spirit found in the empires that preceded them. It now plays out in their current quest for leadership of the Muslim world.

Nevertheless, these two neighbors have also shown the willingness and ability to compartmentalize their rivalry to prevent any overt conflict, carefully carving out spheres for collaboration.

Today, the Turko-Persian relationship does not fall into the strict categories of enmity or amity. Rather, it strikes a balance between the extremes, allowing bonds to often bend but never break.

Thus, the nuance of their relationship is best captured by the term “frenemy.” In the nation-state context, frenemy connotes a multi-dimensional and fluid association, rather than a fixed one.

While seemingly a paradoxical concept, frenemies are able to straddle the gray area between adversity and alliance. Such nations can concurrently castigate and embrace one another other. The ties between Tehran and Ankara are among the best examples of this tendency.

Clash of the titans

As the two non-Arab powers of the Muslim Middle East, Turkey and Iran offer rival visions for the region’s order. These diverging viewpoints are first and foremost informed by the biographies of the men at the helm of each state. More broadly, they stem from the political experiences of each country in the post-colonial era.

Today, the competition between Tehran and Ankara is primarily ideological, intensified by Turkey’s renewed quest for primacy in the Muslim world. Increasingly, both countries exercise influence over key conflicts in the Middle East, seeking consultation on local matters and wider recognition as a regional power.

In today’s Middle East, both the Islamist-leaning Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Islamist revolutionary Ayatollah Khamenei retain the same formula to propel themselves towards regional primacy:

  • Championing the Palestinian cause
  • Touting Islamic ecumenicalism to unite a region beset by sectarianism
  • Highlighting their respective political ideology as a model for the region.

At first glance, these may appear to be shared goals, but they rather constitute the domain for competition between the two powers.

The essence of Ankara’s revived interest in the Middle East lies in the worldview of Turkey’s ruling AKP and that of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in particular.

For 11 years prior to becoming premier in 2014, Davutoğlu shaped Turkey’s foreign agenda, first as then-Prime Minister Erdoğan’s foreign policy adviser and later as foreign minister.

A desire to regain its lost respect

Much like Iran’s revolutionaries, Davutoğlu, too, desires a new regional order. His vision is one that would maintain the modern notion of a nation-state, but in which nationalism would play second fiddle to the region’s shared culture and history.

According to that model, Turkey would fall into place as the Middle East’s natural leader, thereby continuing the righteous legacy of the Ottoman Caliphate.

Not only would this scenario realize the pan-Islamic aspirations of the AKP, it would also help overcome the nation’s decades-long sense of humiliation stemmed by its failed efforts to join the EU and fully integrate with the West.

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For its part, Iran has been increasingly excised from the international community for many years now, largely over its illicit drive for a nuclear weapon.

At the foreign policy level, the Islamic Republic of Iran is fundamentally a revolutionary state. It works to upend the balance of power it believes is arrayed against it in the Persian Gulf and wider Middle East.

Iran’s message gains traction not when the region is afforded relative stability and prosperity, but when it is in the throes of tumult and instability. The reason for this is simple: Populations who feel downtrodden are far more susceptible to narratives of injustice and oppression during periods of want or war.

Dependence and Co-operation

For all the contrasts and conflicting interests, the two countries are also dependent on each other. In particular, Turkey needs Iranian oil as much as Iran needs the Turkish market. A reported 90% of all Iranian gas is exported to Turkey alone.

To date, Turkey remains one of the six countries (alongside Taiwan, China, India, South Korea, and Japan) that receive national security waivers from the United States to continue their purchases of Iranian crude oil.

Ankara and Tehran’s mutual ability to set aside their regional competition from their broader, enduring economic relationship further underscores the value of their ties.

Even at the height of the U.S.-led sanctions regime in 2012 and 2013, Turkey facilitated a “gas-for-gold” exchange, which provided Iran approximately $13 billion in Turkish gold as payment for natural gas.

The cooperation extends into areas of covert assistance as well. Reports emerged in 2013 that Erdoğan had divulged to Tehran the identities of several Iranians allegedly operating on Israel’s behalf inside the Islamic Republic the previous year.

While it remains unclear whether it was the aforementioned energy dependence, prevailing economic expediency or shared animus towards Israel that compelled Turkey to aid Iran’s counterintelligence efforts, the incident provides important insights.

Most important, it illustrates that despite compartmentalized competition, as long as Turkey and Iran harbor greater enmity toward Israel than toward each other, avenues for cooperation will remain available.

Not the bestest friends yet

Yet, neither this covert cooperation nor long-standing overt economic engagement has ever fully transformed into a full-fledged alliance between the two aspiring powers.

And while the last century saw Mustafa Kemal Atatürk suspend Turkey’s centuries-long struggle for regional primacy to focus on nation-building at home, the days of Kemalist isolationism are now long gone.

For the Islamic Republic’s part, the ascendance of a religious Turkish government may be welcomed, but one with a post-Kemalist, neo-Ottoman imperial agenda is certainly not.

Nevertheless, commerce and diplomacy continue unabated. Thus, the crises in Yemen, Iraq or even Syria have not been enough to rupture ties between Ankara and Tehran. But neither has Turkey’s permissive stance towards Tehran’s nuclear diplomacy earned Ankara a place in the hearts of Iran’s hardliners.

The nuclear deal

Seen from Ankara, a nuclear deal removing Iran from a web of energy sanctions could also pave the way for Turkey to become a regional energy hub by connecting Iranian natural gas to EU countries.

As a non-energy producing country, Turkey is quite fortunate to have a variety of neighbors and allies that supply fuel. All the more convenient is its location between centers of energy supply and demand. That makes its territory one of the most efficient transfer routes for oil and gas.

The big picture is that these two pivotal Middle Eastern actors will continue to vie for influence. At least for the foreseeable future, Turkey and Iran are likely to retain the relationship they have had for years — neither best friends nor enemies but merely the best of “frenemies.”