Iran and Turkey Relations: Challenges and Opportunities in interview with Bilgehan Alagoz
By: Vali Kouzehgar Kaleji
International Peace Studies Center (IPSC)
Bilgehan Alagoz holds a full-time faculty position as a lecturer at Institute for Middle East Studies of Marmara University, Istanbul. She was a visiting fellow at Middle East Studies Program of the University of Wisconsin-Madison during Fall 2008. She holds a BA degree in International Relations from Istanbul University and an MA degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Marmara University. She is expected to gain her doctoral degree by the end of Spring 2012 with her dissertation entitled “US Persian Gulf Policy and Its Implications on Iranian Foreign Policy: Turkish-Iranian Relations During Ahmadinejad Period”. Her areas of interest are Turkish-Iranian Relations, Iranian Foreign Policy, Middle East Politics and Persian Gulf Studies.
IPSC: After the AKP came to power in 2002, it train of Iran-Turkey relations is moving fast ahead thanks to measures by the two sides and will not move back. But there are some challenges that have influenced bilateral relations. I would like to concentrate on them. As you know, US and EU imposed different sanctions against Iran. Sanctions commonly bar nuclear missile and certain military exports to Iran; investments in oil, gas and petrochemicals; exports of refined petroleum products; business dealings with the Iranian Republican Guard Corps; banking and insurance transactions, including with the Central Bank of Iran; and shipping. In this situation, what’s your opinion about Turkish role and policy toward Iran?
Alagoz: It is certain that we are facing tough times ahead regarding Iran’s relations with the international community. For many years, there had been a division among US and European countries about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program but now it seems that they stand as one by adopting new rounds of sanctions against Iran. Actually for the United States, sanctions policy against Iran is not a new subject. During the Clinton Administration US had adopted a similar policy as part of its Dual Containment Policy. At those years contrary to US, EU had preferred to keep diplomatic channels with Iran through its policy which was named as Constructive Dialogue. But this time we are at the edge of a new process: There is a trilateral structure, namely on one side there is UN Security Council Resolutions, on other side US Decisions and on the third side there is EU decisions. At this point Turkey’s position is very clear. Unlike the EU and the US, Turkey remains opposed to the new U.S.-led measures. Of course as all of the UN members, Turkey is bound with the Security Council Resolutions, but last year as the non-permanent member of the Security Council, Turkey voted against the fourth round of sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program. Because Turkey believes that there is still a room for a diplomatic solution regarding Iran’s nuclear program. That’s why along with Brazil, Turkey negotiated a deal with Iran just before the last round of UN Resolutions to send some of its low-enriched uranium abroad in exchange for access to fuel for a medical reactor. However, for Turkey it is not easy to pursue these efforts while US and EU are acting together. Turkey has deep institutional relations with both of the parties. Therefore, Turkey is respectful to US and EU, but also expects the same attitude from them. In addition to this, there are other factors that affect Turkey’s concerns about the sanctions. Iran has emerged as a major oil and natural gas provider to Turkey, which is entirely dependent on imported energy. Under these circumstances it is almost impossible for Turkey to freeze its ties with Iran. It would directly affect Turkey’s economy. I still believe that as a result of Turkey’s intensive diplomatic efforts there can be reconciliation between Iran and the international community.
IPSC: Iran has reacted to growing international pressure by threatening to block naval traffic across the Strait of Hormuz, threatening a vital international oil route in the Persian Gulf. led to increase tensions between Iran and Western and Arab Countries. What’s your analysis about consequences of this issue? Can Turkey play a mediator role in current situation?
Alagoz: This is another tough issue regarding Iran’s relations with the international community. Actually, recent tensions in the Persian Gulf remind me of the Cold War escalation of early 1960’s. There is already a tendency among experts of the region in analyzing the situation in the Persian Gulf with reference to Cold War by naming the situation as “A New Cold War”. As you may remember, during the early years of the Cold War, the parties adopted an escalation policy and relied on threats. But in the meantime the parties refrained from direct military action. We witness the similar attitudes regarding the Strait of Hormuz. As a response to US and European sanctions Iran threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait of Hormuz is the vital link between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. It is also one of the most strategic chokepoints in the world when it comes to oil transit. If economic sanctions sufficiently pressure Iran to retaliate by closing down the Strait, nearly 20 per cent of worldwide oil trade would be impacted, resulting in a massive spike in global energy costs. For this reason, closing the Strait is consequential not only for Iran but also for the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and the United States. According to my view, the parties will not pursue the escalation policy which might result in with the closure of the Strait of Hormuz. As far as the vulnerability in the global economy is concerned, none of the parties would take this kind of risk that would directly affect the global economy. We actually had a similar experience during the Iran-Iraq War. At those years, there was a dispute between the US and Iran which was named as the Tanker War, but even at that time Iran did not prefer to close the Strait. I believe that both Iran and other regional countries will act rational. At this point, Turkey also has an important role as the unique country which has good relations with Iran, Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and the United States. In this context, Turkey’s High Level Strategic Dialogue with (P)GCC is noteworthy. Recently at the High Level Strategic Dialogue Fourth Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs held in Istanbul, on 28 January, Turkey and (P)GCC has confirmed determination to enhance their cooperation in all fields. In this vein, Turkey has a constructive role between Iran and (P)GCC which is an important opportunity for all of the parties. Similarly, through NATO’s Istanbul Initiative Turkey can be a mediator between Iran and the United States in terms of the recent tensions in the Persian Gulf.
IPSC: Tehran, Ankara, and Damascus are three important capital cities in the Middle East, and their relations have been influenced by many factors recent developments in the region. The issue of hosting the Syrian opposition in Turkey has raised many questions in the mind of Iranian officials regarding this trilateral relationship. How are the relations between Iran and Turkey, these two strategic allies, influenced by their different positions on Syria?
Alagoz: Elected in 2002 and reelected in 2007, the AKP government determined a neighborhood policy called zero problems foreign policy, which had a vision of minimizing issues with neighboring regions while avoiding involvement in international confrontations. As part of this new foreign policy concept, Turkey aimed to put a balance at regional level which created closer relations with both Iran and Syria. However, the recent developments in Syria carry the potential to bring about far-reaching ramifications for peace and stability in the Middle East. Turkey sincerely wishes that the events evolve in a better direction and thus encourages the Syrian authorities to undertake a swift reform program that addresses the needs and demands of Syrian citizens. Turkey has also made it clear that she is ready to provide whatever contribution and support needed in the reform process. On the other hand, Turkey opposes international military intervention in Syria. I believe that Iranian government will come to the similar conclusion with Turkey.
IPSC: Turkey has agreed to host a radar system as part of NATO’s missile defense, a decision that Iran has criticized. How could this influence Iran-Turley relations?
Alagoz: As I previously mentioned Turkey has institutional relationships. As a member of NATO Turkey is bound with its principles. Thus, Iran should perceive Turkey’s decision to host NATO’s early-warning radar system within this framework. Turkey has expressed in many occasion that she does not perceive Iran as a threat to region. I think this is already enough to see to what extent Turkey pays attention on Iran’s perception. At this point, I am sure that Iran will understand Turkey’s relations with other countries and institutions and I believe that Turkey’s engagement with the West is an opportunity and also a guarantee for Iran to have a dialogue with the international community.
IPSC: In spite of aforementioned challenges, what are main opportunities in Iran-Turkey bilateral relations? And how two neighboring countries them ?
Alagoz: As two important states of the Middle East, Turkey and Iran have always been influential for each other. The relations between the two countries have been determined by historical, geographic, strategic, and cultural factors. Both of the countries are aware of the importance of the bilateral relations. In this context, Turkey and Iran cooperates with each other in very critical issues. The relations between the two countries have been characterized by several concerns. The security issue, namely the growing Kurdish terrorist/separatist activities in both countries, has been the most important factor in setting up relations. The situation in Iraq is also another important factor that urges two countries to have closer relations. Following the US withdrawal from Iraq, both Iran and Turkey have continued to make an effort to inspire confidence in one another. In addition to these areas of collaboration, there is still a great potential between the two countries. At this point, Iran should get benefit from Turkish entrepreneurs and create opportunities for mutual projects. I quickly remember the problems that Turkish GSM operator Turkcell and construction firm TAV faced when they tried to invest in Iran. Tourism is another potential that is due to advance. Both Iran and Turkey should motivate tourism operators for the development of tourism between the two countries.
IPSC: Thanks for your responses and cooperation.
Alagoz: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to express my views about Turkish-Iranian relations and the challenges that have influenced the bilateral relations.