Turkey, Iran and Iraq: An alliance or just cooperation?
On Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid an official visit to Tehran, where he was welcomed by his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani with an official ceremony at Saadabad Palace, where the pact was signed.
Erdogan also met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is more powerful than Rouhani, and has constitutional authority and substantial influence over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, as well as the military and media. Khamenei is the commander-in-chief of all Iran’s armed forces. His meeting with Erdogan lasted more than an hour.
Turkey’s Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar visited Iran last Sunday to prepare the ground for Erdogan’s visit, and to hold talks with top Iranian officials and commanders on developments in Iraq and Syria.
The coming days will show how the decisions taken in the recent Turkish-Iranian meetings will be implemented. The durability of the cooperation between Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad depends on how the crisis plays out.
Akar’s visit was a reciprocation of one by his Iranian counterpart Gen. Mohammad Baqeri. In August, for the first time since Iran’s 1979 revolution, an Iranian army chief visited a NATO member country. Baqeri’s visit was also significant given the state of relations between the two neighbors.
Baqeri said Turkey and Iran will collaborate in matters of military training and border security, and will take part in each other’s war games. Both countries have also deployed additional troops to their border with Iraqi Kurdistan, and have invited Iraqi forces to join in training drills.
This series of visits by military and political leaders indicates a growing impulse to take joint action in some areas of Syria and Iraq. The main driving forces behind these visits are the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan and the “de-escalation zones” to end the conflict in Syria. The atmosphere at the talks was a far cry from Erdogan’s previous meetings with Iranian officials.
At a joint news conference with his Turkish counterpart, Rouhani said any changes to the borders of Iraq and Syria were unacceptable. “Turkey, Iran and Iraq have no choice but to take serious and necessary measures to protect their strategic goals in the region,” said Rouhani. Erdogan warned of further “decisive steps” that Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad might take if the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) ignores them.
Despite opposing policies and divergent agendas regarding Syria and other areas in the Middle East, the Kurdish referendum and fears of Iraq fragmenting have united historical rivals Tehran and Ankara.
But there are questions over how long the partnership, which also includes Baghdad, will survive. Given their foreign policy records and stances toward regional crises, it is hard to call the current cooperation an alliance. This cooperation is fueled by shared concerns against a particular party, so it will not turn into a new Saadabad Pact.
It seems the fate of the oil-rich Iraqi province of Kirkuk will dominate the agenda in the coming days. Both Iran and Turkey had said Kirkuk’s participation in the Kurdish referendum was provocative and unacceptable.
The province has the potential to bring Iran, Iraq and Turkey closer together against the KRG, but it also risks escalating the crisis. The coming days will show how the decisions taken in the recent Turkish-Iranian meetings will be implemented. The durability of the cooperation between Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad depends on how the crisis plays out.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.
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