Ostensibly, the 312-mile border between Turkey and Iran has been one of the most stable and peaceful in the volatile Middle East. Recent years have often seen official language from the two countries about prospering bilateral trade and common anti-Israeli ideological solidarity. But mostly out of sight have been indications of rivalry, distrust, and mutual sectarian suspicion between the two Muslim countries—factors that have proved a formidable obstacle to a genuine Turco-Iranian friendship.
Facts vs. Official Euphemism
Visiting Turkish and Iranian state dignitaries have frequently parroted the cliché that the Turkish-Iranian border has remained unchanged, an expression of "very good and brotherly relations" between the two countries. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs' webpage describes the bilateral ties glowingly: "The Turkish-Iranian political relations have since 1979 [the Islamic Revolution in Iran] steadily risen. This should be attributed not only to a common historical and cultural basis but also to common interests and good neighborly relations." In various public statements, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has spoken of "a very long, common history Turkey and Iran have shared."
In 2006, the Transatlantic Trends Survey found that Turks felt twice as warm toward Iran as they did toward the United States. According to pollsters Taylor Nelson Sofres, (a) 72 percent of Turks blamed the 2006 Lebanon war on Israel (compared to 59 percent of Lebanese); (b) excluding Israel and Lebanon, 64 percent blamed the war on the United States (compared to a world average of 34 percent); and (c) 44 percent sympathized with Hezbollah in the Israel-Lebanon war while only 10 percent sympathized with Israel. But against this backdrop is the reality that most of Turkey's ruling elite are devout Sunnis, and since the advent of Islam, Shiites and Sunnis have only allied against "infidels," and otherwise have fought bloody wars against each other as they still do.
A full-scale war was fought in 1733 when the Persians fought to take Baghdad from the Ottomans. The Zand dynasty attacked Ottoman Basra in 1775, a conflict that lasted until 1821 when another war broke out until 1823. In 1840, conflict arose over control of what is today Iran's Khorramshar. The modern era is little different. Iran supported Kurdish uprisings in 1930 and in subsequent disputes over the border. Secular and leftist Turkish intellectuals were allegedly killed by Iranian cells as part of efforts to export the Islamist regime. The Iranian fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has been only conjectural since the Tehran regime systematically harbored the PKK before it decided Kurdish separatism also threatened its own security. Finally, there is the realization among some in Turkey that an eastern neighbor with nuclear weapons offers a threat rather than simply a trading partner and a supplier of natural gas and crude oil.
Cracks in the Facade
In recent years, a major public chink in Turkey and Iran's bilateral relations emerged due to sectarian divisions after Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spearheaded international efforts to depose Syrian president Bashar Assad, Tehran's man in the Levant. That support also deeply strained Turkey's ties with Iraq where the Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki undiplomatically warned in 2012 that "Turkey was becoming a hostile state."
Turkey's "passage to Persia" cracked in March 2011 when Ankara informed the United Nations Security Council that it had found weapons and ammunition aboard an Iranian cargo plane bound for Syria. The cargo included rocket launchers, mortars, rifles, explosive materials, and ammunition—a breach of U.N. resolutions banning Tehran from exporting arms. During the summer of 2011, one official Iranian newspaper accused Turkey of systematically providing "Syrian terrorists" with arms, a claim that was repeated more than two years later by the Fars News Agency. Shortly after the first public accusation, Sobh'eh Sadegh, an Iranian Revolutionary Guards media outlet, sternly warned Ankara about its stance against Syria, emphasizing that Iran stood squarely with the Assad regime: "Should Turkish officials insist on their contradictory behavior, and if they continue on their present path, serious issues are sure to follow." The report also stated that, if necessary, Iran would choose Syria over Turkey. Sobh'eh Sadegh further alleged that "Syrian protestors are puppets of Zionists and the United States." Turkey replied by raising the stakes when security officials intercepted another arms shipment from Iran destined for Syria (or Lebanon and Hezbollah). This time Iran had preferred a land route; a truck full of weapons was stopped in Kilis near Turkey's Syrian border.
But before and after the Syrian split, there was a curious if discreet military rivalry with both sides pretending, once again, to be "Muslim brothers" while playing games behind closed doors. In February 2010, then-U.S. ambassador to Ankara James Jeffrey said that "he was skeptical Turkey can persuade Iran to abandon any ambitions it might have for a nuclear bomb." Only a month later, Erdoğan told the BBC that he believed Tehran had no intention of developing nuclear weapons, and "he had full confidence in Iran's guarantees that its nuclear program was for civilian purposes only." Erdoğan (and Davutoğlu) have also always defended Tehran's nuclear program on the grounds that, first and foremost, Israel should dismantle its nuclear arsenal.
There was public Turkish sympathy for Iran's nuclear program as well. According to Transatlantic Trends, Turks in 2011 were the least worried among NATO nationals about Tehran acquiring a nuclear weapon. Only 38 percent of them said they were troubled by Iran becoming a nuclear power while 25 percent accepted that Tehran could acquire nuclear weapons. But Turkey's security bureaucracy discreetly viewed an Iran with nuclear ambitions and missile capabilities as an increasing threat.
The Military Rivalry
In late 2011, Turkey's state scientific research institute, TÜBITAK, reported that its scientists would soon finish an all-Turkish missile with a range of 1,500 km (approximately 930 miles), and in 2014, another with a range of 2,500 km (approximately 1,550 miles). The head of TÜBITAK said the order for the missile program had come from Erdoğan.
Apparently, the Turco-Persian sectarian rivalry was heating up as Tehran already had 1,300-km (approximately 800 miles) Shahab-3 missiles in its inventory. A year later, Ankara raised the stakes by deploying a mini-missile defense architecture in southeastern Turkey, causing an uproar in Tehran.
The system, owned by NATO and deployed presumably to protect Turkey from the threat of Syrian chemical-biological attack, is made up of six Patriot anti-missile batteries. But contrary to how it was portrayed, the Patriot umbrella would not primarily protect three and a half million Turks in the area but rather a U.S.-owned, NATO-assigned radar deployed there the previous year—directed not at Syria but at Iranian ballistic missiles. The mission for the early warning missile detection and tracking radar system is to provide U.S. naval assets in the Mediterranean with information in case of an Iranian missile launch targeting an ally or a friendly country, including Israel. Anti-missile protection over the NATO radar in Kurecik is essential for the alliance.
Turkish and NATO officials claimed that the location of the Patriot batteries (Adana, Gaziantep, and Kahramanmaras) and the radar at Kurecik made any connection between the two impossible. But the Patriot is a road mobile system, so it would not be difficult to dismantle a battery and re-deploy it closer to Kurecik in a matter of hours. It was Iran, not Syria, which twice threatened to attack the NATO system since the Patriots guarding the NATO radar are a threat to the joint Iranian-Russian offensive missile capabilities, which these NATO assets could theoretically neutralize. The only possible vulnerability is if Iran launched its Sejil missiles from a distance of 1,600-1,700 kilometers (990-1,050 miles).
In other words, the Patriots would never be launched for defense unless the enemy—Iran, for instance—first launched its missiles to attack. Tehran's unease over the deployment of the NATO radar and the mini-missile defense architecture that will protect it from enemy fire looked like neighbors protesting and threatening to fight just because the folks next-door had installed burglar alarms.
The Enemy of My Enemy…
But despite missile problems, Turkey and Iran had other reasons to cooperate, including their anti-Israeli policy and bilateral trade. In February 2011, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hosted a delegation in Tehran from the disastrous Turkish "relief ship" Mavi Marmara. The delegation participated in Iran's Revolution Day ceremonies, and its head, Nureddin Sirin, noted: "We are here today with the longing and the determination to build a Middle East without Israel and America, and to refresh our pledge to continue on the path of the Mavi Marmara shahids [martyrs]." On February 12, the same Mavi Marmara activists reiterated "the promising words of the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran … that 'only a short time is left for the building of a Middle East without Israel or America in it, and we are praying for the quick arrival of that bright day, when all of us will meet in a free al-Quds [Jerusalem].'"
Such language was not unfamiliar to Iran's then-president Ahmedinejad, who declared in 2006 that the "Zionist regime will be wiped out soon the same way the Soviet Union was." In 2007, the Iranian government's English broadcast service reported that Ahmadinejad suggested holding a referendum on the transfer of Israel's Jews to Europe, Canada, or Alaska. Then in 2008, he said that the "idea of 'smaller Israel' is also dead. The very notion of Israel is dead … Just like the idea of Greater Israel died 30 years ago." This was followed by his prediction that the "Zionist regime … will soon disappear from the geographical scene" and that "attempts will not save Israel from extinction."
Turkish leaders echo these sentiments. Davutoğlu predicted that "al-Quds will soon be the capital of Palestine, and we'll all pray at al-Aqsa Mosque." In 2010, the Turkish minister said, "Israel will not be able to remain over time an independent country."
The difference between the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad and Davutoğlu is that the fiery Iranian was talking about "no Israel" in plain language while the milder Turk was talking about a "smaller Israel" in subtle language. It was not a coincidence that Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamene'i and Erdoğan took the first two slots on the Simon Wiesenthal Center's annual list of the top 10 anti-Semitic and anti-Israel slurs of 2013.
Money Has No Sect
Trade is another pillar of the improved relationship between Ankara and Tehran. Annual two-way trade is now estimated to be worth $15 billion though it shrank by around $5 billion from 2012 due mainly to international sanctions on Iran. Analysts say the real trade volume may be much higher since a wave of corruption charges in December 2013 alleged that Turkish officials and the state-owned Halkbank have been helping Iranian businesses dodge international sanctions. Since the United States and European Union countries imposed sanctions on Iran in 2010, financial operations and transactions with Tehran have been severely restricted. As of March 2012, Iran has also been banned from using the SWIFT international money-transfer system.
Thus it became impossible to transfer money to and from Iran. Since Ankara was unable to pay for the natural gas and oil it has been buying from Tehran through routine channels, it opened a bank account for Iran at Halkbank to hold the amount equivalent to its purchase. Tehran converted the deposits in these accounts to gold, later transferring it back to the country. Iranian exports still reach Turkey, and the proceeds fund the purchase of gold and silver that flow back to Tehran. In turn, Turkey's fast-growing economy needs Iran's oil and gas, its investments, and large export market. During Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif's state visit to Ankara in January, Turkish and Iranian officials pledged to increase their trade to $50 billion in the medium-term. In December, The Tehran Times quoted Umit Yardim, Turkish ambassador to the Iranian capital, as saying that the two countries were targeting $100 billion in annual trade.
Blessed Are the Peace-makers
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's charm offensive has resonated not only in Western capitals but also in Ankara. Although Davutoğlu's early successes in boosting Turkey's regional and global status as the East-West bridge were largely eclipsed in the near past, now could be an opportunity to revive that role as the former Persia slowly emerges from isolation. What better gateway than Turkey?
In addition, a return to the usual official language and a freezing of hostilities could also help Ankara achieve a parallel rapprochement with Baghdad. As a senior Turkish diplomat recently told this author, "The key to Baghdad and, to some extent, to [Iraqi Kurdish capital] Erbil is probably in Tehran." That key may not only open political doors in Baghdad but also serve as an economic gateway at a time when a big oil deal with Iraqi Kurdistan hangs in the balance, pending approval from the central authority.
Moreover, Rouhani's more moderate government might give Ankara a chance for leveraging a deal in war-torn Syria and reduce the risk that Erdoğan's government could lose votes in the three upcoming elections because of new—especially Syria-related—foreign policy embarrassments. Turkish pollsters found that 65 percent of Turks supported Davutoğlu's policies in 2011, the same year that Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) received 49.8 percent of the national vote. But in late 2013, support for Davutoğlu had plummeted to 25 percent, and a Syrian deal could help.
Some Turkish diplomats believe that better relations with Tehran could also raise Ankara's face value in the West. They expect Western encouragement for the Turkish-Iranian rapprochement, which could bring economic development to Iran and thus bolster moderates in Tehran.
On the nuclear issue, the Turkish government unequivocally welcomed the interim deal concluded in November 2013 between Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1). The Turks would be happy if Tehran were to abandon its nuclear ambitions; should the interim agreement be successfully implemented and made permanent after six months, a major security threat could disappear from Turkey's doorstep. Another perceived benefit for Ankara, albeit symbolic, is that it sees the interim agreement as an exoneration of its failed attempt in 2010 to broker an agreement with Tehran with help from the Brazilian government on the disposition of nuclear fuel. This support was evident in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' statement on the interim deal: "The agreement … constitutes the first concrete, positive development concerning Iran's nuclear program since the Tehran declaration of 2010."
Nothing New on the Eastern Front
Still, relations with Iran have never been easy for Turkey. There are many unknowns and much mutual distrust. Ankara is not sure how much Tehran would be willing to appreciate or highlight Turkey's services in administering the nuclear deal and in helping it emerge from long years of isolation. Turks also fear that Erdoğan's (and to a certain extent, Davutoğlu's) obsession for an "Assad-less, Muslim Brotherhood-run Syria" may change newfound balances with Iran. A real game-changer toward more comfortable ties could be a decision to terminate the deployment of the NATO radar on Turkish soil, but there are no indications of that yet.
Ankara's regional ambitions also pose a major obstacle to more stable and peaceful relations across the border. In a speech in Sarajevo in October 2009, Davutoğlu said: "Like in the 16th century, which saw the rise of the Ottoman Balkans as the center of world politics, we will make the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, together with Turkey, the center of world politics in the future. This is the objective of Turkish foreign policy, and we will achieve this."
In an April 2012 speech, Erdoğan was even more specific:
But this same vision antagonizes Tehran. Though the Turkish dreams of a new world order based on the supremacy of Turkish Sunni Islamism have recently foundered against regional and global realities, Ankara has not abandoned its hopes for a Sunni bloc—a group of satellite states paying servitude to the emerging Turkish empire. Nor for that matter have the Iranians abandoned their hold on a Shiite crescent opening up to the Mediterranean Sea. These two ambitions, rooted as they are in historical sectarian rivalries, are fundamentally unbridgeable although they may recede from time to time.
All the same, from the Turkish perspective, one external factor could be Turkey's domestic politics. If the ruling AKP loses votes in local elections on March 30, 2014, Turkey's entire political landscape, including foreign policy-making, could change. A series of corruption scandals and a growing feud between Erdoğan and powerful Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen—until 2012, one of Erdoğan's most important allies—may be eroding the AKP's popularity. Erdoğan, elected three times as prime minister since 2002, has pledged to quit party leadership this year due to a self-imposed rule that limits politicians to three parliamentary terms.
But Erdoğan is not really planning retirement; he is hoping at least to maintain (or preferably boost) his popularity in the March elections and use this success as a stepping-stone to run for president in summer 2014. Under this grand plan, the AKP wins a constitutional majority in parliamentary elections in 2015 and amends the constitution to introduce an executive presidential system, equipping Erdoğan with Putinesque powers, as opposed to the present symbolic role for the president.
But a significant drop in the AKP's support in March could ruin that plan. Some party dissidents, wary of Erdoğan's increasingly authoritarian rule, are secretly hoping that senior, moderate politicians within the party ranks will confine him to the present, powerless presidency and launch AKP version 2.0 based on a more pluralistic, less confrontational doctrine. If that happens, foreign policy czar Davutoğlu may lose his seat, and Turkey could adopt a less assertive regional policy—good news for Tehran. But with or without AKP 2.0 (or Davutoğlu), if Ankara maintains the foreign minister's policy principles, the two countries are likely to go back to their silent war for regional power and sectarian dominance.
In all likelihood, the neo-Safavids will keep on playing chess while the neo-Ottomans play passionate sets of backgammon.
 Press TV (Tehran), Dec. 19, 2013.