|June 25, 2002||atimes.com|
Turkey plots its own course on Iran
By Hooman Peimani
Turkish President Ahmed Necdet Sezer paid an official visit to Iran on June 17. As a mainly ceremonial head of state with limited power in shaping Turkey's domestic and foreign polices, his visit was not salient in its immediate achievements for both countries, but it was very significant for its political gesture.
While the United States seeks Iran's isolation as a member of the axis of evil, along with Iraq and North Korea, the official visit of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member's president with several US military bases in his country indicated Turkey's disapproval of such policy. It also reflected its pursuit of national interests, even though they may be opposite to those of the United States, a country with which Turkey has extensive multidimensional ties.
Iranian-Turkish relations have experienced many upheavals since the Iranian revolution of 1979. That development ended a period of extensive and peaceful ties between the two neighbors, which also included their membership in a regional military alliance (Central Treaty Organization, or CENTO) based on their common ideological commitments and on their shared security considerations.
Their pursuit of two incompatible foreign policies characterized by pro- and anti-American orientations, and two opposite domestic policies advocating secularism and theocracy, have since made their relations uneasy and problematic. For a long time until about five years ago, their ties were limited and at best unfriendly, if not hostile on occasions, as they accused each other of seeking to destabilize the other country's political system by backing their respective illegal armed political groups. A shift in Iran's foreign policy after the Iran-Iraq war improved Tehran's ties with some countries inside and outside the region, including Turkey, to a limited extent, but it did not have a major impact on Iranian-Turkish relations.
The election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and his determination to break Iran's isolation have since helped his country improve its ties with many countries, including its neighbors. As a main component of his foreign policy, easing tension, which also includes Iran's refrain of real or perceived hostile behaviors in its foreign relations, has contributed to improving Iranian-Turkish ties to a great extent.
The two countries have not experienced major crises in their relations and expanded their ties in political, economic and security fields over the past five years, although various issues have kept those relations vulnerable to periodic tensions. The latter have the potential to escalate to major political conflicts and even military confrontations, a scenario that both sides have made efforts to avoid. Less frequently and with a much lower importance attached, each side still accuses the other of harboring its armed opposition groups, but there is not much evidence, if any, to substantiate either country's extensive and systematic activities in this area. In particular, Turkey has failed to provide evidence of Iran's tolerating or training its armed Kurdish opposition group (PKK) despite Iran's repeated request for such evidence.
While that issue has been gradually disappearing as a major source of conflict, other issues have gained prominence. Turkey's delayed implementation of a contract to import Iranian gas via a pipeline was a major source of irritation in Iranian-Turkish relations for about two years until last December, when it finally connected its pipeline to that of Iran. As the contract was based on pay-or-buy principle, the issue of Turkey's obligation to pay Iran for its lost exports and Turkey's refusal to do so created tension in their bilateral relations.
Besides such conflicts, foreign-policy-related issues have been the major causes of fluctuations in Iranian-Turkish relations, although issues such as commercial land transit and customs regulations have also created short-term disputes. Among them, Turkey's friendly, extensive and expanding ties with Israel and the United States have been paramount. Turkey's growing military ties with Israel and the permanent stationing of 12 percent of the Israeli air force in Turkey have been a major source of security concern for Iran, despite Turkey's efforts to underestimate their significance, a rather difficult goal to achieve given the hostile state of Iranian-Israeli relations.
The other two major sources of tension have been Turkey's multidimensional ties with the United States and its rivalry with Iran in Central Asia and the Caucasus, the two regions of political, economic and military/security importance to Iran and Turkey. Given Iran's troubled relations with the United States and its perception of Turkey both as a rival on its own merits and also as a promoter of US interests in southern Central Asian countries bordering Iran, they have remained two major causes of tensions in Iranian-Turkish bilateral relations.
In particular, the issue of their involvement in the Caspian oil industry, including the export of Caspian oil to international markets via Iran or Turkey over which the two countries have been competing since the mid-1990s, has contributed to an atmosphere of mistrust and, on occasions, hostility. As a recent example, conflict between Iran and Azerbaijan over a disputed Caspian oilfield last August had the potential to escalate into confrontation between Iran and Turkey if the two sides had not exercised self-restraint. In that incident, Turkey sent a small number of military aircraft to Azerbaijan to demonstrate its solidarity with the Azeris and to warn the Iranians.
Despite conflicts and periodic tensions, both Iran and Turkey have sought to improve their relations, as friendly ties are equally important for the two neighbors requiring a long period of peace and stability to address their numerous economic problems. Permanent tensions and conflicts and their possible escalation to major political and military confrontations will surely not serve their long-term national interests. Despite fluctuations, the two sides have made efforts, with some success, to reduce tension and expand their bilateral relations.
The Turkish president's visit should be interpreted as yet another effort for improving relations. Given the ceremonial status of the Turkish presidency, the visit could not, and was not meant to, help expand ties drastically, a fact reflected in the conclusion of only two minor economic and cultural agreements. However, it was surely important for its political significance, as it indicated the value of friendly ties with Iran for the Turks and their reluctance to follow the US policy aimed at isolating Iran. President Sezer stressed this point as he expressed Turkey's "deep interests" to expand bilateral relations with Iran in political, economic and cultural fields. This is notwithstanding of the importance of ties with the United States for the Turks and their NATO membership.
Dr Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva and does research in international relations.
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