The Aging Culture of Neighborhood in Turkey-Iran Relations

In late February, 2021, some news outlets headlined a new ‘tension’ between Turkey and Iran. Arguably the crisis had erupted over a statement by Iraj Masjidi, the Iranian ambassador to Bagdad, denouncing Turkish military operations in the north of Iraq as a violation of the sovereignty of the Iraqi government. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Mohammad Farazmand, the Iranian ambassador to Ankara, to declare its distress concerning the ‘baseless’ statement. The Ministry warned the ambassador that rather than standing against Turkey’s fight against terrorism as embodied by the PKK, Iran should lend support to Ankara. In return, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Derya Örs, the Turkish ambassador to Tehran, in order to convey its discomfort at a statement by Süleyman Soylu, the Interior Minister, who talked of the presence of PKK militants on Iranian soil. Despite a background of inflammatory media reports interpreting the events as a new round in the crisis between the two countries, those developments did not escalate into animosity between the two states.

Likewise, nearly three months ago, there was another ‘diplomatic crisis’ between the two states over an anonymous poem recited by President Recep T. Erdoğan on December 10 at the victory parade in Baku on the occasion of the Azerbaijani triumph over Armenia in the Karabagh dispute. The poem highlighted the sorrowfulness over the division of historic Azerbaijan, and amplified Iranian anxiety over the Azerbaijan question. In line with the Iranian public uproar over Erdoğan’s recitation, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad J. Zarif, tweeted a ‘disrespectful’ text in his social media account. The poem crisis was swiftly managed by diplomats on both sides before it escalated into a watershed moment.

In the meantime, Zarif paid an official visit to Istanbul in January, where he talked with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on potential stability in the Caucasus based on the idea of a 3+3 format proposed by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (Turkey, Russia, Iran plus Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia). Soon after that, Turkish, Russian and Iranian delegations met in Sochi on February 16-17 in order to hold the ‘15th round of the International Meeting on Syria in the Astana format’. Later, on February 21, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani held a phone conversation with President Erdoğan, when they exchanged ideas for the desired removal of US sanctions on Iran.

The above-mentioned developments in Turkish-Iranian relations in a short span of time prove how bilateral relations between the two states are diverse, complicated, and intertwined. They also display how Turkey and Iran are experiencing concurrent instances of cooperation, rivalry, and resentment. It is puzzling, however, for many to grasp the nature of Turkish-Iranian relations.

The Persistent Dynamics of Cooperation and Rivalry

Above all else, the simultaneous operation of patterns of cooperation, rivalry and resentment is not a novel phenomenon. The history of Turkish-Iranian relations is full of numerous instances of cooperation and amicable relations between the two states accompanied by a discourse of historical rivalry. Moreover, the dynamics of cooperation and rivalry have revolved around common or similar themes.

First of all, the legacy of the historical Ottoman-Safavid rivalry, imbued with sectarian differences and geopolitical concerns, has haunted the minds of the elite in both countries, underpinning suspicion and mistrust of each other. After the emergence of nation-states, transnational movements, particularly Pan-Turkism, appeared as a national security concern on the Iranian side given the large numbers of Turkish-speaking people settled in that country. Since then, Iran has been preoccupied with a fear of Pan-Turkism. Additionally, the Iranian revolution of 1979 strained Turkish-Iranian relations because of Ankara’s disquiet over the Iranian export of revolution or Islamic radicalism. Recently, it has evolved into growing Turkish concerns with Pan-Shi’ism and proselytizing activities promoted by Tehran. Finally, geopolitical shifts in the Caucasus after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the new geopolitical landscape in the Middle East after the Gulf Wars have led to the reinvigoration of Iranian and Turkish dreams of building their past empires in new forms and exerting political, economic and cultural influences. Thus, new geopolitical realities unleashed Turkish-Iranian rivalry over the Caucasus and the Middle East, particularly over Iraq, where historical Iranian-Ottoman rivalries were centered.

Counter to the aforementioned dynamics of rivalry and resentment, common religious bonds and cultural commonalities have constituted a durable base for cooperation between Iran and Turkey. Many diplomats commonly recall nearly four hundred years of stability across the border between two nations as evidence of friendship and good-neighborhood. In this respect, strategic dictums of neighborhood require at least a minimum level of interaction between nearby states for the sake of border security and the management of cross-border relations. Likewise, economic considerations and trade interests constitute rational bases for collaboration between the two states. Finally, overwhelming strategic threats that render both countries vulnerable, such as great power interferences that currently threaten both Iranian and Turkish interests, emerge as a factor that forces them to cooperate.

A number of issues surrounding border security such as smuggling and unrestrained movements of tribes and armed bands has continued to be a constant theme of both friction and partnership between the neighbors. The Kurdish question especially, embodied by the Kurdish movements seeking an autonomous or an independent and united Kurdistan state, has emerged both as a source of dispute and cooperation between Ankara and Tehran. While fighting ‘separatist’/ ‘terrorist’ movements on their soils, both Turkey and Iran have built intricate relations with Kurdish parties in Iraq and have watched each other apprehensively. In this regard, aside from occasional security and intelligence cooperation, Turkey has repeatedly blamed Iran for either directly or indirectly supporting Kurdish rebels, and frustrating the Turkish fight against them.

The Culture of Neighborhood

Attempting to explain enigmatic relations between Turkey and Iran, short-sighted analyses lean on the selective use of history in order to provide further evidence such as historical rivalry or cooperation to explain their positions. However, the dynamics of cooperation, rivalry and resentment have been there and working simultaneously for over a century. That is why current cases of tensions or friendly statements would be very familiar to Iranian and Turkish officials of the 1920s. The continuity and the simultaneity of similar dynamics for cooperation and rivalry could be explained by the prevalence of a culture of neighborhood between modern Iran and Turkey.

Accordingly, Turkey and Iran recognize each other as neighboring states with distinctive identities and interests, even though they may have some commonalities and shared interests. Additionally, they acknowledge the steadiness of the dynamics of cooperation and rivalry, which have turned out to be structural factors that could not be eliminated easily in the given international/regional conditions. However, the absence of territorial disputes between the two states has helped them to develop and maintain a neighborhood relationship based on the preservation of a fine line between cooperation and rivalry. They have become careful to keep each other at arm’s length; while refraining from building intimate relations, they have been sensitive not to antagonizing each other. Even at times of heightened rivalry, the two states have not engaged in hostile activities against each other.

That culture of neighborhood based on a ‘realist’ assessment of surrounding conditions over Turkish-Iranian relations has occasionally been challenged by change of leadership or geopolitical shifts in the nearby regions. As a result, while tension and rivalry have escalated at some times between the two states, at other times they have achieved remarkable rapprochement. However, given the continuous and simultaneous impulses for competition and partnership, Turkish-Iranian relations have always been restored on the basis of the culture of neighborhood and have continued to operate along the fine line between cooperation and rivalry.

In this framework, Turkey-Iran relations have achieved apparent shifts from a cooperative to a competitive relationship, which has actually remained within the margins set by the culture of neighborhood. As an example of this situation, Turkish-Iranian relations of the past two decades have witnessed many shifts between alignment and rivalry. First, a considerable rapprochement took place between Ankara and Tehran from 2001 to 2011. That rapprochement was facilitated by the rationalization of bilateral relations, growing economic opportunities for both sides, and looming geopolitical threats arising from the American occupation of Iraq. However, geopolitical opportunities and threats that emerged in nearby countries, particularly in Iraq and Syria in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and the growing self-confidence of Ankara and Tehran to project themselves as regional powers, led to an estrangement in Turkish-Iranian relations between 2011 and 2016. Changing geopolitical considerations in Turkey and Iran after 2016 unleashed a new process of cooperation between the two states at different sectors and levels.

As a result of the persistent but diverse dynamics of cooperation and rivalry in Turkish-Iranian relations, there was a considerable number of instances of friction between Ankara and Tehran even at times when cooperative relations prevailed, and the reverse has also been true. It is also clear in the examples given above concerning the recent past of Ankara-Tehran relations. Hence, the nature of Turkey-Iran relations defies simplistic explanations centered on geopolitics, identity, or elite preferences, but reflects an aging culture of neighborhood based on the maintenance of relations on a fine line between cooperation and rivalry.

Bayram Sinkaya

Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt Unviersity, Department of International Relations. Dr. Bayram Sinkaya received his Ph.D. at the Middle East Technical University (METU), where he worked as a research assistant (2002-2011). He was a visiting researcher at Columbia University (2007-2008) and Tehran University (2003). He also served as a non-resident research fellow at ORSAM (Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, Ankara) for Iranian affairs between 2015-2017. His academic interests include Iranian politics, foreign and security policies of Iran, Middle East politics and Turkish foreign policy. He is the author of The Revolutionary Guards in Iranian Politics: Elites and Shifting Relations (NY: Routledge, 2015).

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