Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar, leading a high-ranking military delegation, will visit Tehran for strategic talks next week, the Iranian media reported today. Akar is expected to meet with his Iranian counterpart General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, President Hassan Rouhani and other top Iranian military and political leaders. According to the Iranian media, the two sides will discuss the implementation of bilateral defense and security agreements signed during Bagheri’s visit to Ankara last month. The conflict in Syria and the aftermath of Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence vote will be other key agenda items. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is also scheduled to attend a “bilateral strategic summit” in Tehran in early October.
Comment: The upcoming visits to Tehran by Akar and Erdogan are the latest indication that Iran and Turkey are determined to reconcile their differences and find common grounds in regional issues. During Bagheri’s visit to Ankara last month, the two sides discussed ways to boost bilateral defense ties, coordinate joint counterterrorism efforts and cooperate more in Syria and Iraq. It was the first time that an Iranian military chief visited Turkey since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
After returning from Ankara, Bagheri announced that his Turkish counterpart would soon pay a visit to Tehran to “complete and conclude the agreements” the two sides reached upon in Ankara. The visit already produced results. Earlier this month, Ankara, Tehran and Moscow reached an agreement to establish a fourth de-escalation zone in Syria’s Idlib Province – something Tehran and Ankara failed to do in the previous Astana meeting. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said yesterday that the trio are working on a new de-escalation zone in the northwestern Syrian district of Afrin as well.
Ankara and Tehran also strongly opposed the Iraqi Kurdistan’s move to hold an independence referendum on Monday. Both home to sizable Kurdish minorities, Iran and Turkey fear that a Kurdish independence in Iraq would empower voices of separatism and autonomy within their own territories. Presidents Rouhani and Erdogan discussed the Kurdish vote over the phone yesterday and pledged to cooperate on the issue. Erdogan is also expected to push for joint Iranian-Turkish counterterrorism operations inside the Iraqi Kurdistan against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (P.K.K.) militants and its Iranian affiliate P.J.A.K. – a proposal Tehran has not agreed to yet.
The latest steps by the two countries to improve their relations should be seen within changing regional and international contexts.
The Islamic Republic believes that it has “defeated” its regional rivals in Syria and Iraq. Tehran is therefore now willing to work with Ankara to defuse tension and consolidate and sustain its gains.
Turkey, on the other hand, has failed to convince the Trump administration to stop supporting Kurdish forces in northern Syria or take an aggressive approach toward Iranian-backed militia forces in Syria and Iraq. Despite Turkish concern, for example, the U.S. military gave the Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary forces the green light to participate in the Tal Afar operation. It is no surprise that Turkey is now seeking to address some of its national security concerns in the region through working more closely with Russia and Iran.
But the transactional relationship between Tehran and Ankara is unlikely to transform into a strategic alliance anytime soon. The two countries will continue to have divergent policies and interests in the Middle East. Ankara and Tehran will continue to compete for power and influence in Syria and Iraq as the weakening of the Islamic State creates a power vacuum in the region. Turkey is positioning itself as the protector of the Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq as well as the broader region, while Iran is expanding its arc of influence through the region's Shiite communities.