Turkiye, Iran manage tensions during Raisi’s visit


Turkiye, Iran manage tensions during Raisi’s visit

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi before their meeting in Ankara.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi before their meeting in Ankara.
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After twice delaying his visit to Turkiye due to the rapid escalation of conflict in the Middle East, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Wednesday arrived in Ankara, where he was received by his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In his first official trip to Iran’s neighbor since his election in 2021, Raisi headed a large delegation that included the country’s foreign, energy and interior ministers.

The visit saw a number of deals inked between the two sides, along with a four-hour meeting between Erdogan and Raisi on topics of mutual concern and also divergence. Relations between Turkiye and Iran have always been complex and multidimensional.

The primary concerns that the two countries are currently addressing revolve around the Gaza war. The press conference between Erdogan and Raisi predominantly centered on this conflict, showcasing distinct approaches. While Raisi’s tone was harsh, Erdogan maintained a measured tone. The latter coincides with the ongoing improvement in Turkish-American relations, as marked by this week’s approval by Ankara of Sweden’s entry into NATO.

In regard to the Gaza war, the two leaders want to contain the ongoing escalation; however, there are differences in their approach. Iran expects Turkiye to impose a trade embargo and halt commercial relations with Israel. During a recent meeting of the Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers, this topic was also raised by the Iranian side, but the Turkish side avoided using definitive statements.

Turkish-Israeli trade relations have not seen a change since Oct. 7. Even during the decades-long tension between the two countries, trade did not halt between Ankara and Tel Aviv. This is because, as it does with Iran, Turkiye compartmentalizes its relations with Israel. They see eye to eye on the Mediterranean and the Caucasus, while clashing when it comes to the Palestinian cause.

Over the past two decades, Turkiye and Iran have jockeyed for the leadership of the Palestinian cause. But in the latest Gaza war, both have taken a stance that does not overshadow the efforts of the other. Even if Raisi raised the topic of a trade embargo at the leadership level, this is unlikely to produce a sea change in Turkiye’s policy.

Even if Raisi raised the topic of a trade embargo on Israel, this is unlikely to produce a sea change in Turkiye’s policy

Sinem Cengiz

On the other side, Iran aims to strengthen its trade ties with Turkiye. Tehran considers Ankara as its major economic partner in the face of the economic sanctions it faces from the West. Ten new agreements covering the fields of energy, tourism and trade were signed during Raisi’s trip.

Apart from the shared objective of enhancing their trade connections, Iran serves as one of the primary suppliers of energy to Turkiye. These agreements and commitments at the leadership level are significant in overshadowing some of the troublesome bilateral issues they face by focusing on economic gains.

There is also an expectation that a new border gate will be opened between the two countries in Turkiye’s Van province. During Raisi’s visit, a meeting on border security was held in Van by the relevant authorities from the two sides.

In addition to the Gaza war, Iraq, Syria and the Caucasus are the main topics of divergence in Turkish-Iranian relations. Last week, Iran launched missile and drone strikes into both Iraq and Syria. Turkiye has maintained a cautious stance regarding these attacks; nonetheless, it is likely they will have unsettled Ankara.

Iran views Turkiye’s influence in Iraq — whether through its military deployments or the relationship it has with the Kurdistan Regional Government — as a potential challenge to its own strategies there. Turkiye’s spy chief held a critical visit to Iraq a day before Raisi arrived in Ankara. It is significant to note this visit within the overall developments.

The Turkish government has, in recent years, sought to deepen its influence in northern Syria and Iraq, where its policies are at odds with those of Iran. Tehran’s attack on Idlib, where Turkiye is an influential actor, was an expected but at the same time disturbing action.

The Caucasus is one of the least-mentioned but also most important areas of competition between the two

Sinem Cengiz

Iran and Turkiye have assumed opposing stances in Syria since the beginning. In 2017, the two countries, along with Russia, managed to establish the Astana peace process in an effort to resolve the conflict. However, in reality, this format has only served to prevent conflict between Iran, Russia and Turkiye, while also dividing their spheres of influ­ence. While Raisi was on his trip to Ankara, the deputy foreign ministers of Iran, Turkiye and Russia held their 21st round of talks in the Astana process in Kazakhstan.

The Caucasus is one of the least-mentioned but also most important areas of competition between Tehran and Ankara. While these two regional powers have traditionally managed to balance their interests, their rivalry has started to take a prominent shape in the last few years. As a consequence of the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020, which ended with a victory for Azerbaijan over Armenia thanks to Turkish and Israeli support, Iran’s influence in the region has started to fade and Ankara’s footprint has been consolidated.

The prospect of a “less Iran, more Turkiye” dynamic heightens Tehran’s apprehensions toward Ankara. Iran fears a weak Armenia seeking rapprochement with Turkiye and an empowered Azerbaijan cultivating closer ties with Israel, while Ankara aims to shape the developments in the region in its favor.

Despite this ongoing rivalry on different fronts, the dynamics of Turkish-Iranian relations fluctuate between a managed rivalry and restricted cooperation. In other words, the compartmentalization of different issues has been the primary driver of the relationship between Tehran and Ankara. This practice is likely to persist as a guiding principle in the future.

Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. X: @SinemCngz


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