The new Palestinian-Israeli war that began in October revealed the attitude of many Islamic and non-Islamic countries to this conflict. Of course, the reaction of the Arab countries and key Muslim states of the Middle East is of particular importance for Palestine. The position of Turkey and Iran stands out above all other countries on this list.
We cannot say that Tehran and Ankara have demonstrated a unified approach since the beginning of this military crisis, that is, since October 7. Even today, however, Iran and Turkey are not unanimous about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In fact, this is natural, since each country acts primarily in its own national interests, and then in collective ones.
Turkey and Iran remain important states in the Middle East region, whose positions and opinions are key in resolving many issues related to regional stability, economic development and relations between the Middle East and the rest of the outside world.
The history and present of these two countries and peoples include imperial traditions, Islamic identity, favorable economic and geographical position, and approximately equal population (about 85 million people in each country). At the same time, Iran and Turkey are different ethnic civilizations (Persian and Turkic) with different Islamic trends (Shiism and Sunnism), different political regimes (theocratic and secular), different military-political orientations (independent and NATO) and different raw material resources (the Persians have oil and gas, while the Turks’ resources are not enough).
A whole series of Ottoman-Persian territorial and religious conflicts took place from the formation of the Ottoman Empire in 1453 until its collapse in 1923. And only for almost a quarter of a century, from 1955 to 1979, Turkey and Iran were temporary military-political partners in the pro-Western CENTO bloc. However, after the February Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the change from the pro-American Shah’s regime to an independent theocratic one, Iranian-Turkish relations once again became strained and distant.
And it is natural that the branding of the United States as the “Great Satan” by the leader of the Islamic revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, for its imperialist policies in the world in general and in the Middle East in particular, shaped complex relations between the new Iran and NATO member Turkey for a long period. In fact, Turkey, on whose territory Pentagon military bases and CIA intelligence facilities are deployed, was an enemy of Iran. Moreover, certain Persian-Turkish civilizational, historical and religious contradictions continued to influence the politics of the two neighboring countries. One way or another, Turkey was forced to join the policy of anti-Iranian sanctions of the collective West.
One of the themes to highlight the Iranian-Turkish contradictions was the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Tehran unequivocally supported the liberation struggle of the Palestinian people and was hostile to the Zionist ideology and policies of Israel, viewing the latter as a tool of American imperialism aimed at colonizing the Middle East and exploiting the natural resources of the region. Turkey was the first country in the Islamic world to recognize the State of Israel and establish diplomatic relations with it on the advice of the United States and Great Britain.
With the collapse of the USSR and the beginning of the transformation of the foreign policy of regional states (including Turkey, whose President Turgut Ozal in 1992 proclaimed a new doctrine with a focus on consolidating independence from the West and Turkic integration), gradual changes began to be observed in Turkish-Iranian relations. The first breakthrough was associated with the establishment of more productive trade and economic relations and the construction of a gas pipeline from Iran to Turkey under the 1996 agreement.
In particular, the 2,557 km long Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline with a capacity of 14 billion cubic meters per year was put into operation in 2001. Turkey usually imports 11 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Iran and Turkmenistan through this gas pipeline. Negotiations are underway between Turkey and Iran to extend the current gas contract for another 25 years, which expires in 2025.
However, even at the turn of the 20th–21st centuries, the foreign policy and geo-economic priorities of Ankara and Tehran remained sharply contradictory. This concerns Iran’s reaction to the Turkish strategy of neo-Ottomanism and Pan-Turanism and Ankara’s regional policy in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq), the South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan) and Central Asia (Turkic republics and Persian-speaking Tajikistan). Iran did not welcome Turkey’s position of supporting Chechen separatism against Russia. The latter acted under religious slogans. In reality, Turkey, Great Britain and the United States fueled the conflict in the North Caucasus with the aim of blocking Moscow and exporting Azerbaijani oil and gas bypassing Russia through Turkey to Europe.
Tehran is concerned about Ankara’s geo-economic strategy to establish control over the Caspian basin and the energy resources of the coastal Turkic states (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan). Serious differences in the approaches of Iran and Turkey are also observed regarding the prospects for the Zangezur corridor in Armenia, where Tehran fears the establishment of a “Turanian bridge” connecting Turkey with the rest of the Turkic world to the detriment of the interests of Iran.
In the political fray between Recep Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen, Iran supported the then-current Turkish Prime Minister, since F. Gulen supported the United States and its policies of using the so-called “moderate Islam” to manage processes in the Muslim world. Erdogan began to position himself as a leader independent of US influence and, against the will of Washington, to establish effective trade, economic and other ties with such world players as Russia and China, as well as to promote Islamic traditions in Turkey itself.
The IRGC and its famous General Qasem Soleimani maintained active working relationships with the Turkish intelligence services (in particular, with the then head of MIT, Hakan Fidan). The above-mentioned Soleimani, according to Iranian sources, made a significant contribution to saving the life of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the July 2016 coup.
Despite their different approaches to the Syrian crisis, Iran and Turkey nevertheless took an active part in the Astana negotiation platform (Russia, Turkey, Iran, Syria) thanks to Russian diplomacy. Tehran welcomed the Turkish-Azerbaijani initiative to form a new 3+3 regional platform (Russia, Turkey, Iran + Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia). In other words, everything that is done without the involvement of the United States, Europe and Israel is supported by Iran.
As for Israel, relations between Iran and Turkey began to change for the better after the pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party led by R. Erdogan came to power in Ankara. In particular, Tehran welcomed the harsh anti-Israeli rhetoric of the Turkish leader and Ankara’s joining the Freedom Flotilla humanitarian mission for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, condemned the actions of Israeli special forces to kill 9 Turkish citizens on board the Mavi Marmara in 2010 and approved the cooling Turkish-Israeli relations.
While supporting Hamas’s liberation struggle, Iran responded positively to the transformation of President Erdogan’s position from cautious diplomacy to unequivocal support for Hamas in the current conflict with Israel. The fact that the Turkish leader refused to recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization under pressure from the West and Israel and, on the contrary, publicly declared its struggle just and liberating, could not but please the Iranian authorities. Accordingly, Erdogan’s subsequent statements accusing the United States and the West of aiding Israel, condemning the policy of Benjamin Netanyahu and the actions of the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip, accusing Tel Aviv of committing “war crimes” and calling for a ceasefire and political negotiations could not but elicit a positive response from Iran.
The visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian to Ankara in early November was aimed at comparing notes of Tehran and Ankara on the following issues: the situation in the Gaza Strip; the upcoming participation of the two countries at the extraordinary summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Riyadh; bilateral trade, economic and communication relations; Armenian-Azerbaijani reconciliation, etc. Following this visit (during which Amir-Abdollahian met not only with his colleague Hakan Fidan, but was also received directly by President Recep Erdogan), the visit of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Ankara, scheduled for the end of November, was announced.
As is known, on November 11, the leaders of Turkey and Iran took part in the extraordinary OIC summit in Riyadh, which actively discussed the position of the Islamic world in relation to the conflict in the Gaza Strip. Despite the big speeches of the majority of participants, the forum did not make more effective and coordinated decisions to provide political, military and economic support to the Palestinians.
All calls for a ceasefire and the opening of humanitarian corridors that were made following the summit, without effective military assistance (coalition, arms supplies, internationalization of the conflict), without the introduction of at least a temporary economic embargo on the export of oil and gas from Muslim countries to Israel and Western countries for the duration of the war, without blocking the “air corridor” over Israel and without political recognition by the OIC countries of the independence of Palestine, will obviously remain at the level of words and wishes.
Iran is not particularly pleased with Erdogan’s penchant for “telephone diplomacy” and demonstrative pro-Palestinian rallies in his own country. Iran is unlikely to welcome the preservation of American military bases currently located in neighboring Turkey, or Ankara’s refusal to completely cut off all ties with Tel Aviv or withdraw from the NATO bloc. Turkey’s diplomatic initiative to create an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem, operating under a Turkish mandate, is unlikely to fully meet Iran’s approaches to the final resolution of the Palestinian issue. Simply because Tehran advocates the destruction of the Zionist regime and the ousting of American military and economic dictatorship from the Middle East.
With all this, President Raisi’s visit to Ankara involves a discussion of a broad bilateral agenda, including what concerted efforts Tehran and Ankara can make on the situation in the Gaza Strip, given the deteriorating dynamics regarding Israel and assistance to Hamas. The Gaza Strip is not only a matter of humanitarian assistance and ceasefire, but also the release of hostages, mediation with the United States, forms and methods of military support for Hamas, the post-war future and guarantee mechanisms.
In addition to Gaza, the political block of the Iranian-Turkish negotiations will obviously include a wide range of issues (in particular, the Middle East and the Caucasus, that is, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan). Tehran adheres to the position of restoring Turkish-Syrian relations and the withdrawal of occupying Turkish troops from the northern regions of the Syrian Arab Republic. In the situation of Armenian-Azerbaijani reconciliation, Tehran is opposed to the infringement of Armenia’s sovereignty and discrimination of the rights of the Karabakh Armenians. Iran also wants to find out how the 3+3 regional consultation platform proposed by Turkey will function.
The economic set of issues, accordingly, involves discussing the following:
– project for the formation of the Joint Commission for High-Level Business Cooperation;
– prospects for extending the gas contract (Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline) for 25 years;
– construction of new border and customs points on the Iranian-Turkish border;
– the fate of the Zangezur corridor through Armenia and bypass routes of transport links between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan through Iran;
– transboundary waters of the Tigris, Euphrates and Araks river basins, which originate in eastern Turkey and flow to Syria, Iraq and Iran, and the decrease in water levels in the rivers due to the operation of the hydroelectric power station system in Turkey often leads to dust storms in neighboring countries.
In any case, the very fact of the meeting between Turkish and Iranian leaders gives some hope for achieving stability in bilateral and multilateral relations, despite different approaches and views of Ankara and Tehran.
Aleksandr SVARANTS, Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, exclusively for the internet journal “New Eastern Outlook”.