When I approached the VIP lounge at Esenboğa Airport on Tuesday, live broadcast vehicles were lined up awaiting an important guest. Once inside checking in, it became clear that the whole commotion was due to Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akber Salehi’s visit to Ankara. Our Foreign Ministry had already issued a strong statement in response to the irresponsible charges against Turkey by the Iranian chief of staff a few hours earlier. What a turnaround when we look back a few years.
Yesterday, Yeni Şafak’s Yasin Doğan wrote an important piece titled “Something strange is happening to Iran…” In fact, nothing strange is happening to Iran. Iran is the same unreliable Iran that has always envied Turkey’s rise in the region and has seen Turkey as a regional rival, a dangerous alternative to its own socio-political model. Despite that, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s neighborhood policy sincerely attempted to develop relations with Tehran. Apart from some partial benefits, Turkey’s support was never really reciprocated. Now, it seems the Turkish public and the upper echelons of the AK Party have begun to see Tehran’s true colors.
Doubts about our efforts to work closely with Iran were already emerging in 2009 when we made a visit to Tehran with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Those were times when many were eager to be in the same photo with President Mahmoud Ahmadinajad. A few of us felt it was incumbent on us to caution relevant decision-makers. However, in November 2009 those friendly warnings were quickly dismissed. When we found ourselves defending the decision to oppose sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council in 2010, the situation became even more complicated. We had spent invaluable diplomatic capital on Iran with little in return. The shrewd Iranians always pretended they were embarking on a special relationship with Turkey. Many in Ankara were eager to believe.
Looking back, it seems to me that Iran never intended to engage in such a manner with Turkey. Similar to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime, it conveniently used Turkey’s diplomatic clout in favor of its own interests. Just as we saved Assad from his international isolation after the Hariri murder, we spent critical diplomatic capital voting against the Iran sanctions in the Security Council. Then, the mantra was that Iran would soon open critical sectors in its economy to Turkey. Iranian gas fields were supposedly going to be employed jointly. Bilateral trade was to reach $30 billion annually. Of course none of that materialized. The Iranians never intended to open up to Turkish firms, which would upset internal commercial interests within the mullahcracy.
Centuries-old perceptions of Turks and Turkey were not going to be changed by our overtures in recent years. The moment we looked after our own interests, the character of the relationship would change. That moment came in the form of Turkey agreeing to the stationing of the early warning radar system in Kürecik. Turkey’s Syria policy cemented the fundamental divergences emerging in the Turkish-Iranian agenda. Subsequently, the Iranian press started psychological operations against us. God knows what backroom dealings are at play with Tehran, Damascus and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
All in all, this week confirmed that the quality of the Turkish-Iranian relationship has significantly deteriorated. That may not be such a bad thing. I have always maintained that the most valuable consequence of the Arab Awakening has been the fact that it killed Turkish romanticism about the Middle East. That naive romanticism was most evident among Turkey’s conservatives. Syria and, by extension, our differences with Iran and Russia over Syria have brought about some welcome sobriety about the complexities of the region. As neighbors, Turkey and Iran inevitably have to work together in a number of areas. However, that relationship should be conditioned by a Turkish awareness of the Iranian regional agenda, which is very much framed by a sectarian worldview. Turkey’s reintegration into its neighborhood space needs reassessment in view of the tectonic changes precipitated by the Arab Awakening. The Iranian piece in this equation should constitute an important part of this reassessment.