SPEAKING FREELY Ankara uses Tehran to show prowess
By Jayson Browder
Turkey has seized the opportunity to show its regional prowess and in the same step re-engage with an old friend. The ties between Iran and Turkey are intrinsically deep and filled with a rich history connecting them both to the founders of each nation.
They not only shared a common geography - more importantly, the two mutually strived for modernity during the same period of history. When Reza Pahlavi and Mustafa Kemal Attaturk (first president of Turkey) met for the first time in Ankara on June 16, 1934, it was more than a diplomatic visit by the shah of Iran.
Stephen Kinzer, the award-winning foreign correspondent and
author of Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future states, "Turkey and Iran sought to establish themselves as modern nation-states - a new phenomenon in the Middle East. ... The meeting of their leaders was a chance for each country's new order to confer legitimacy on the other."
With 79 years since that first meeting, and the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif are looking to partner up again.
With sectarian violence escalating in the Syrian civil war, strategic trade agreements in the balance, and an ever demanding compromise on nuclear security talks, there couldn't be a more dire need for collaboration as well as the most opportune time for a partnership between these two nations.
Turkey and Iran have finally realized that they have too much to gain and everything to lose if they don't work together in solving these complex issues that bring instability and loss to this region. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking recently to reporters for Hurriyet Daily News stated, "In my point of view, when Turkey and Iran join hands, this will not only benefit both countries, but also become the backbone of regional stability."
"It's now time for cooperation. The dialogue between two regional powers such as Turkey and Iran who share an historic relationship will not only enable our region to gain stability, but also prevent the negative effects of conflicts."
The three clear areas that are critically important to both countries are issues that each country would enormously benefit from. The first area of concern deals with the escalation in sectarian violence in Syria - Iran and Turkey have both been fierce critics of each other's role in the Syrian civil war.
Turkey, a major Sunni power, has been accused of supporting a foreign policy agenda that favors Sunni interests in Syria. This is troubling for Iran, which is largely run by a Shi'ite clerical hierarchy. However, the recent resurgence of extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra in northern Syria close to Turkey's border, brings with it a new sense of urgency for Ankara.
When referencing the issue of chemical weapons in Syria, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated, "I believe sectarian conflict is even a greater threat and it is not confined to one region ... If the flames of sectarianism rage in the Middle East, you will see the results in the streets of London, New York, Rome and Madrid".
Both countries agree that sectarian violence spilling across their borders is one of the most important issues. That is why each foreign minister has abruptly called for an immediate ceasefire before the peace talks in Geneva scheduled for January 22, 2014.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated, "At a place and time where some try to instigate sectarian conflicts, the dialogue between Iran and Turkey is the most important dialogue in the region."
The second concern revolves around the significant trade opportunities. Iran has been and still is one of the most fundamental trading partners of Turkey. This is specifically the case when it comes to natural gas imports from Iran, which is Turkey's second-biggest supplier of natural gas.
Turkey, which is set to become Europe's third-largest electricity consumer in the next decade, will surpass Britain for this spot. To further exacerbate the importance of the natural gas trade between Iran and Turkey is the fact that most of the electricity used in Turkey is produced from natural gas.
Since the beginning of natural gas exports from Iran to Turkey in 2001, their value has grown from US$1.2 billion to $10.2 billion in 2008. Speaking at the 21st ministers' meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization - established in 1985 by Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, and now with 10 members - Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated, "Turkey's annual energy demand is $60 billion. Turkey is a corridor country, Iran is a producer country. If we fuse both potentials, Turkey could become the corridor of energy provider Iran."
These trade opportunities ultimately rely on the materialization of ideas and compromise regarding nuclear talks between Iran and the West. Because of Iran's unwillingness to halt nuclear enrichment, its country has been hit with numerous sanctions.
These sanctions not only significantly affected the economy of Iran but also had very detrimental impacts on Turkey. In 2012, the European Union and the United States imposed stringent sanctions to Iran's financial and oil sectors. As a result, Turkey's import abilities particularly in the form of oil and gas purchases with Iran were extremely hampered.
Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz stated, "We have reduced our imports to 105,000 barrels a day from 140,000 barrels. We cannot reduce it anymore." Because of the sanctions, it is estimated that Turkey has lost close to $6 billion during the first nine months of 2013 compared to 2012. However, Turkey remains Iran's biggest natural gas consumer and is currently importing about 22% of its gas and 44% of all its oil from Iran.
Finally, the recent announcement on an interim deal with Iran and the West on Tehran's nuclear aspirations brings a fresh enthusiasm and added sense of urgency for the Turkish government to reignite relations with Iran.
On a trip to Tehran last week, Turkey's foreign minister said, "It is now time for cooperation. ... The dialogue between Iran and Turkey is the most important in the region." Turkey is now positioned to build a bridge with Iran on all three of these important issues. The neighbor, trading partner, and long lost friend will greatly benefit economically and diplomatically from this agreement.
"Even though the nuclear deal with Iran is an interim agreement, it is about a renewal of confidence between the West and Iran," Turkish-Iranian Business Council vice president Bilgin Aygul said. It is even more so if a final deal can be reached between the West and Iran.
The government of Turkey has seen itself as a bridge between the West and the Arab world but now as a vital mediator between Iran and the West. Joost lagendijk, a senior adviser at the Istanbul Policy Center sums it up: "Turkey will benefit economically from a deal that, in the short run, diminishes tensions and helps revive trade in the region, and also promises a future boom in the Turkish-Iranian economic relations."
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Jayson Browder is a multi-award winning Air Force and Iraq Veteran who graduated from Fordham University. Awarded the William J Fulbright Scholarship for 2013 to Turkey. Jayson is currently serving the US State Department in Eastern Turkey as an English Instructor at Bayburt University for academic faculty.