Erdogan in Tehran

By Gönül Tol | Director of the Center for Turkish Studies - The Middle East Institute | Jan 29, 2014
Erdogan in Tehran

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in Tehran January 28 and 29 for his first meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, and Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci are accompanying him. MEI spoke to Gonul Tol, Director of the Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, about the meeting.

What is the reason for this high-level visit?

Iran issued an invitation to Erdogan. Both countries want to expand ties, especially in the energy sector. Turkey is an energy-hungry country and is planning to increase oil and gas imports from Tehran after the gradual lifting of sanctions. Turkey uses a significant portion of its imported Iranian natural gas to generate electricity, and Iran is Turkey's second biggest gas supplier, after Russia. Iran seeks a bigger share in Turkey’s energy market as well. In 2012, the two countries agreed to increase their annual trade volume to $30 billion, up from $22 billion, and they are working toward preferential trade agreements.

What other types of trade between the two countries may result from the lifting of sanctions?

According to the interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program, world powers will suspend sanctions on various items, including gold. The suspension will provide Iran with a total relief figure of $7 billion, and this money flow will boost bilateral trade. The deal will crack open the door for gold traders in Turkey. In 2012 Turkish exports to Iran totaled $9.9 billion. Due to the sanctions on the gold trade, that number dropped to $3.4 billion in 2013. Thus Turkey’s trade with Iran will benefit from the easing of sanctions on gold.

Yet will Turkey’s and Iran’s differing stances on Syria inhibit trade? 

The fact that Turkey and Iran have been backing opposing sides in the Syrian civil war has led to tension in their relations, but neither country can afford a long-term fracture. For the Turkish side, the energy partnership is crucial. Thus Erdogan’s visit to Iran is likely an effort by both sides to patch things up and lay the groundwork to expand trade, and now that the interim deal has been signed, Iran offers an even bigger opportunity as a trade partner.

Also, Turkey recalibrated its Syria policy and is now more in tune with Iran. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently issued a joint statement with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the effect that “Turkey and Iran see eye-to-eye regarding the end of the Syrian crisis, which has no military solution.” This is an important shift in Turkey’s Syria policy.

What are the roots of this shift?

For the past two years, Turkey has called on the international community to undertake a more forceful measure, including military action, to remove Assad. But the Obama administration’s decision to head off planned strikes on Syria, the Saudis’ takeover of the Syria portfolio from Turkey and Qatar, and the establishment of the Russian-U.S. chemical weapons deal have left Turkey isolated both at home and in the region. Turkey invested heavily in the Syrian opposition located in Turkey, but even its allies in the opposition aren’t as influential as they once were. On the ground, the main fighting factions are closer to the Saudis. As a result, Turkey’s role in Syria is diminishing. Obama’s rapprochement with Iran carried further risks for Turkey to become marginalized in regional affairs and international efforts to tackle the Syrian crisis.

Turkey seems to have accepted that due to the sectarian nature of the conflict and the fighting among different segments of the opposition, Assad's departure will not end the bloodshed and a political solution might be the only way out. Turkey also seems to be adjusting to Iran’s new standing in the region and has no objections to Iran’s offer to mediate between Syria and Turkey.