ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads to Tehran Wednesday for meetings with Iran’s religious and political leadership. Bilateral relations have been strained in recent years, with the countries competing for influence across the region, but they now have found common ground in opposition to the Iraqi Kurdistan independence vote, which took place last month.
“The most important motivation for Erdogan’s trip to Tehran is the crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan,” said Professor Jamshid Assadi, an expert on Iran at France’s Burgundy Business School.
“They [Iran and Turkey] don’t want independence of [Iraqi] Kurdistan because they know it’s going to lead to [the same in] other countries, in particular Turkey and in Iran.” Turkey, along with Iran and Iraq, have large Kurdish minorities. In a related development, Iraqi soldiers recently took part in a joint military exercise with Turkey.
“The referendum crisis in northern Iraq is a new attempt to strike the heart of our region with a dagger,” Erdogan said Tuesday, in a speech to parliament ahead of his Tehran visit. The Turkish president has been ramping up fiery rhetoric ever since 92 percent of Iraqi Kurds voted for independence.
Forces placed on the border
Erdogan visits Tehran with both Iranian and Turkish forces massed on the Iraqi Kurdish borders.
Analysts, however, suggest the deployments are examples of saber rattling.
“They [Iran and Turkey] are not going to have any agreement to joint military action against the Kurds,” predicted analyst Assadi, suggesting the main priority of Erdogan’s visit is to ensure both sides remain in agreement over the crisis.
“First of all, they want to be sure they support each other on their position toward the [Iraqi] Kurds. I think they are going to say you don’t support them in independence — I don’t give them support in independence. We should not send a different message to the world and to the Kurds, making sure neither side is going to change its policy.”
On Monday, Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdag appeared to downplay any military action.
“There are allegations that Turkey will enter the northern Iraqi region; these are mere speculations. Turkey will act in reason, in coordination with its neighbors,” Bozdag said.
The Iraqi Kurdistan crisis is being seen as an opportunity to bring Ankara and Tehran closer together. “To clear these threats and to move toward shared interests, relations and cooperation between Tehran and Ankara should be broadened,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Monday.
Rivalries between the regional powers have been on the rise, with Turkey increasingly voicing concern over Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and Syria.
“Persian expansionism” is how Erdogan described the situation in June, as he accused Iranian-backed militias of carrying out atrocities against Sunni Muslims, Syrians and Iraqis.
“The very warm appearance that the two counties are now presenting — united over the Kurdish issue — really shrouds over the fact that the two countries are rivals in terms of regional issues and there are few matters they agree on,” said Semih Idiz, political columnist for Al Monitor website. “These differences pertain to very, very different visions to what shall emerge in the region and what will emerge in Syria.”
Turkey was one of the chief backers of rebels fighting the Iranian-backed Syrian regime. With the opposition facing defeat, however, Turkey has started to engage with Iran and Russia in resolving Syria’s civil war. The three countries have agreed to create a de-escalation zone in the Syrian Idlib enclave, the last main base of the opposition. The implementation of the agreement is expected to be high on the agenda of Erdogan's talks in Tehran.
“Any headway in this cooperation in Syria will be to Turkey's advantage, so that is what Turkey will be looking for,” predicted columnist Idiz. “And for Iran, obviously, the more it can pull Turkey into this cooperation, the more it will pull Ankara away from its former position regarding Assad. Both sides have these expectations, but Turkey is in the weaker position, with the Syrian rebels it's backing facing defeat.”
Turkey sides with Iran on sanctions
In a possible move to enhance Erdogan’s hand ahead of his Tehran visit, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu voiced opposition Tuesday to growing calls in Washington to reimpose Iranian sanctions.
“It is a grave mistake to corner Iran,” warned Cavusoglu.
Relations between Ankara and Washington remain deeply strained, strains that already have been an impetus for a Russian-Turkish rapprochement.
Analysts point out Ankara was among those most concerned over the lifting of sanctions against Iran following an international agreement over its nuclear program.
“Turkey has profited a lot from the isolation of Iran from the very beginning,” pointed out analyst Assadi. “Now, more and more, Iran is a candidate to be the dominant country in the region and this Turkey cannot accept. This tension between them is not going to be solved because they agreed on Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Observers predict shared concerns over Iraqi Kurdistan will mean both sides will be keen to downplay differences and emphasize a message of cooperation and unity during Erdogan's visit.