Turkiye’s perspective on the Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement
The China-brokered agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which was announced on March 10, was positively received by Turkish policymakers in Ankara. Turkiye is one of the countries in the region that closely follows developments between Riyadh and Tehran.
In a telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Ankara welcomed the agreement signed between the two countries on the restoration of diplomatic ties after seven years, highlighting the positive impacts for regional stability.
Traditionally, Turkiye, Iran and Saudi Arabia stand as the major regional powers in the Middle East. Their bilateral relationships have far-reaching repercussions, affecting the calculations of both regional and global actors. Neither their cooperation nor their competition are formed in a vacuum, but rather domestic and regional/international dynamics play a critical role. The nature of their relationships was not only influenced by these dynamics but also by the context of the rivalries in the region with other actors or among themselves.
In the past two decades, Ankara’s relations with both Riyadh and Tehran have displayed numerous ups and downs. In the 2000s, the regional balance of power, which was in favor of Iran due to the outcome of the US invasion of Iraq, pushed Turkiye and Saudi Arabia to have closer relations and cooperate on several domains. In the 2010s, when Turkish-Saudi relations were tested due to the regional developments related to the Arab uprisings, Ankara and Tehran engaged in cooperation on specific dossiers, such as Syria. The Astana peace process is an example of this.
In international politics, there are no permanent enmities or alliances, only permanent interests. The Middle East has proven this several times; yesterday’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally. Changing geopolitics and realities in the region push countries to keep ideological differences aside for the sake of national interests and stability in the region. This has been the case in Turkiye’s relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, as Ankara mainly adopts a balanced and pragmatic approach toward Saudi-Iranian rivalry or agreement.
In a scenario of a decreased Iranian influence in the region — if it happens as a consequence of the recent deal — Turkiye would be one of the actors to benefit
The recent Saudi Arabia-Iran deal is not only a win for Riyadh and Tehran, but also for several other actors, such as Turkiye. In a scenario of a decreased Iranian influence in the region — if it happens as a consequence of the recent deal — Turkiye would be one of the actors to benefit.
There is already a prevailing trend toward normalization and detente in the region. Turkiye was one of the main actors involved in this process, having launched reconciliation talks with Egypt, Israel and several Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia is one of the countries with which Turkiye has melted the ice recently. Turkiye has also entered into a normalization process with Syria after a decade of hostility. Iran is one of the actors involved in the Turkish-Syrian normalization process.
Turkish-Iranian tensions have escalated in recent years due to their disagreements on Iraq and Syria, and even in Lebanon. Also, Turkiye’s Syria policy is closely intertwined with the Kurdish separatist threat and Ankara has long had the perception that the Kurdish card was being used by Tehran as leverage. However, despite the tensions and mistrust between Turkiye and Iran, the two countries know how to deal with each other in a less confrontational manner. That is why their complex relationship is usually described as “manageable competition” or “reluctant cooperation,” as in many ways their regional policies clash.
On the contrary, Ankara and Riyadh have a good record of working closely together, as they have found themselves on the same page on several regional dossiers, including Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. For instance, Ankara threw its support behind the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen, accusing Iran of trying to dominate the region with a sectarian agenda through its support of the Houthis.
So, the question arises here, what is at stake for Turkiye as a result of the Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement? For Ankara to follow the normalization path with Syria without the Iranians acting as spoilers would be important. Turkiye desires reduced Iranian involvement and influence in Syria, which is a feeling shared by other regional countries that want to bring Syria back into the Arab fold. In parallel with this, it is important for Ankara to maintain close and positive relations with the Gulf countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, at a time when it faces economic and political issues at home ahead of critical elections.
Also, it would be in the best interest of Turkiye if the Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement could lower the tensions in the region and create a safer environment for all actors to focus on their national visions. Thus, the perspective in Ankara is that this agreement could encourage Turkiye to cooperate with both Saudi Arabia and Iran on different regional topics without feeling the pressure of picking a side.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz