18.12.2023 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

The Iranian President’s visit to Turkey is postponed

The Iranian President’s visit to Turkey is postponed

In early November this year, after the visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to Ankara, the media announced that the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi would be visiting Turkey in late November to meet with President Recep Erdoğan. Some sources were even more specific, claiming the visit would take place on November 28-29. But that visit did not take place – leading to suggestions that it may have been postponed. So, what can have happened in relations between Iran and Turkey over the last few weeks to cause this meeting between two key Middle Eastern countries to be cancelled or postponed?

Iran and Turkey could not fairly be described as close allies. These two neighboring Muslim states (one majority Shia and the other majority Sunni) both have a glorious imperial past, filled with military conflict and rich in contradictions. Before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, both countries were partners of the West and members of the regional CENTO security bloc, but after the change of regime in Tehran, Turkey, as a member of NATO and an ally of the US and UK, became an adversary of Iran.

Despite their geographical proximity, Iran is much richer in natural resources than Turkey, primarily due to its rich gas and oil deposits. Nevertheless, both Iran and Turkey enjoy favorable geographical positions in the Middle East, with access to strategically important waterways and trade routes. Iran and Turkey also have similar populations, 86.7 million and 85.2 million, respectively (2023 figures).

In its foreign policy, Iran follows an independent path, calling for the unity of the Shia and the wider Muslim world while remaining an irreconcilable adversary of the US, NATO and Israel and entering into strategic partnerships with leading global powers such as China, Russia and India. It is also a member of two rapidly-developing international groupings, BRICS and the SCO, and is actively engaged in diplomacy in such regions as the Middle East, South Caucasus and Latin America.

In terms of its internal development, Iran’s theocratic regime tries to preserve its traditionalist course, integrate society on the basis of the Shia Islam, and, out of necessity, to pursue a policy of economic self-sufficiency, achieving considerable success in various sectors, especially in the energy, arms, and machine-building industries, and in agriculture.

Turkey, in turn, remains a member of NATO, has not given up its wish to be further integrated with Europe, and follows a relatively flexible and pragmatic diplomatic course aimed at: achieving its neo-Ottomanism and pan-Turanist ambitions while turning the country into a key international hub for natural resources (oil, gas and grain) and elevating its status from regional power to super-regional and global power.

In terms of its domestic affairs, Turkey follows a policy of assimilation (Turkification), and while formally remaining a secular state, it is promoting the values of Sunni Islam. It has also made considerable progress towards the democratization of its political system and society and follows a liberal economic course.

It should be noted that a number of the political differences between Iran and Turkey related to regional geopolitics within the Middle East, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. In particular, Tehran and Ankara have different views on such issues as Syria and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the exploitation of energy resources in the Caspian basin and Central Asia. Iran remains opposed to the Turkish pan-Turanist doctrine, as applied to Azerbaijan and the Turkic republics of Central Asia.

Nevertheless, despite the differences and divergent views on the above issues, Iran and Turkey have in recent years shown that they respect each other and are able to work together within various groupings, including:

a) the (now defunct) Astana Platform, in which Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syria held talks to try and resolve the Syrian conflict;

b) the 3+3 format Caucasus regional platform, made up of Russia, Turkey and Iran + Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, which was originally proposed by Turkey.

Despite their differences, both Iran and Turkey share the common goal of preserving regional stability in the Middle East. While in the past Iran’s and Turkey’s attitudes to Israel were strikingly different, Tehran’s and Ankara’s relations began to improve after Recep Erdoğan came to power, and particularly after the deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations which began in 2009-2010 and continued in the following years.

The Iranian media see that President Erdoğan’s independent, rather than pro-Western, course and his pro-Islamic political views create favorable conditions for building productive relations between Iran and Turkey. In addition, in the July 2016 attempted coup, when Erdoğan himself was a target of the conspirators, the Iranian security services (in particular, the famous head of Al Quds, General Qassem Suleimani) played an important role in preserving his life and personal safety.

As seen from the outside, many aspects of Turkey’s and Iran’s diplomatic courses during the current conflict between Hamas and Israel suggest that Ankara and Tehran’s positions are closer than ever. Both countries support the Palestinians and consider Hamas to be a legitimate political entity, and see its struggle against the “Zionist regime” as just and liberating. Iran and Turkey condemn Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy of massacring Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and accuse the West (the US and the EU) of complicity in the crimes of the Israel Defense Forces. And they both vote for pro-Palestinian resolutions in the UN, provide humanitarian aid to Gaza, demand a ceasefire and the establishment of lasting peace in the Middle East, and consider East Jerusalem to be the capital of Palestine.

However, despite the outward similarities between their positions in relation to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, Iran and Turkey do not entirely see eye to eye on this issue.

Specifically, Ankara prefers a “diplomacy of rhetoric,” with political declarations, which, while necessary, are unlikely to have any serious impact on the policy of Israel or its main supporter, the US. Iran believes it is necessary to extend the opposition to Israel, both geographically and in terms of its makeup, by involving all Muslim states in the region, and also providing Hamas with effective military and financial assistance. It also insists that all Muslim states should sever their diplomatic relations with Israel and impose a trade and economic embargo on Tel Aviv, and especially to stop the sale and transit delivery of oil and gas to Israel, at least for the duration of the current war. Iran is also calling on Middle Eastern countries to refuse to host US military bases in their countries and in the wider region.

Turkey, however, has a rather different, and less radical, stance on these issues. Ankara has recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, but has not gone so far as to sever diplomatic relations with Israel. Erdoğan condemns the actions of Benjamin Netanyahu but does not rule out restoring full relations with a future Israeli leader. Turkey supports Hamas but does not provide it with any military aid, either directly or indirectly. Erdoğan has loudly and publicly criticized the West, the US and NATO, but has not withdrawn from the latter and has no intention of closing US military bases in Turkey. He also makes grandstanding speeches in support of the Palestinians at Muslim and Turkic summits, but he does not call on his partners and allies to sever trade and economic ties with the “hated” Israel. In addition, oil from Iraq and Azerbaijan continues to pass through Turkey to Israel.

Some commentators believe that the cancelation of Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Ankara is due to the fact that Recep Erdoğan does not agree with Iran’s insistence on the need to sever diplomatic relations with Israel and close US military bases in Turkey. However, Turkish position on these issues was already established in early November, when Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian visited Ankara and then announced a summit between the two leaders in late November.

Other observers cite an alleged dispute between Tehran and Ankara over the release of Thai hostages by Hamas as the reason for Ebrahim Raisi’s decision not to visit Turkey. Iran sees this release as the fruit of its own diplomacy and its influence on Hamas, while Turkey views mediation by Recep Erdoğan as the main factor in the liberation of the Thai hostages. However, that would not explain the postponement of the summit, as in fact both Iran and Turkey acted as intermediaries to help secure the release of the Thai hostages.

Of course, the Palestine issue is far from the only issue on the agenda of the (future) Iran-Turkey summit, which also include border security and the establishment of new border crossings, a proposed free trade zone on their shared border, the formation of a high-level cooperation council, transboundary waters, the fight against terrorism, and regional issues in Syria and the South Caucasus.

As for the water issue, Iran blames Turkey for the dust storms that occur due to the lowering of water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which have their mouths in Turkey and flow through Syria and Iraq. Tehran also accuses Ankara of reducing the flow of the Aras River, which also originates in Turkey and forms parts of the border with Iran. As for Syria, any regional escalation of the war in the Gaza Strip has the potential to upset the existing balance of power in Syria, where both Turkey and Iran have a presence. Tehran is also concerned about the stance of Turkey and its ally Azerbaijan in relation to the opening of the Zangezur corridor. All these issues remain on the agenda of any negotiations between Iran and Turkey, and the fact that the two countries are becoming more closely aligned in relation to the Gaza Strip question is unlikely to help resolve these issues.

It is worth noting that one of the key achievements of Turkish diplomacy in Gaza is the resumption of contacts between Turkey and Iran. In essence, the two key non-Arab states in the region are seeking to combine their capabilities in support of the Palestinians, but their approaches differ significantly. Turkey supports the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, guaranteed by an international mandate, while Iran does not recognize Israel at all, and proposes a joint state for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Turkey verbally supports Hamas and provides humanitarian aid, while Iran has armed groups, particularly in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, which are ready to enter into conflict with Israel. The activities of these groups are having a damaging effect, both on the Israeli military and on US bases in Syria and Iraq.

According to Hossein Amir Abdollahian, the main reason for the cancellation of President Ebrahim Raisi’s planned visit to Turkey is that he is first waiting to see what the outcome of the UN Security Council meeting on the Palestinian-Israeli crisis will be. It is still too early to say whether the Iranian Foreign Minister’s assessment of the situation is accurate. Hopefully the UN Security Council meeting will soon bear fruit and before long the two leaders will be able to meet, to the benefit of both countries and the wider region.


Alexander SVARANTS – Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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