April 9, 2015 | Policy Brief

Pragmatism Trumps Principles on Erdogan’s Iran Visit

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited the Iranian capital on Tuesday amidst rising tension between Ankara and Tehran. The trip – which occurred despite vehement opposition by Iranian hardliners – underscores that the two neighbors’ economic relationship remains too important to be jeopardized by regional disputes.

The main purpose of Erdoğan’s trip was to participate in the second Turkey-Iran High Level Cooperation Council, established last year to boost bilateral trade. Iran is Turkey’s second-largest oil and gas provider and eighth-leading trade partner overall. Turkey and Iran hope to double their trade volume to $30 billion this year, and to reach $35 billion in 2016. This comes after Turkey facilitated a gas-for-gold scheme that helped Iran circumvent international sanctions in 2012 and 2013.

Still, despite their close economic partnership, their regional interests have at times clashed, particularly since the Arab uprisings of 2011. In an unprecedented move last month, Erdoğan lashed out at Iran, denouncing its efforts to “dominate” the region as “intolerable,” and condemned its support for Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. His condemnation, which Tehran wasted no time countering, appeared to be an effort to placate Saudi Arabia, the leading force behind the Sunni military efforts to counter Iran’s influence in Yemen (right before his trip to Iran, Erdoğan met with the Saudi deputy crown prince). Erdoğan is trying to show the Saudis that Turkey shares their alarm over Iran’s growing influence in the region, while reassuring the Islamic Republic that it will not fully commit to Riyadh’s Sunni bloc either.

After their meeting, Rouhani and Erdoğan held a joint press conference. Erdoğan focused his remarks on bilateral relations, papering over regional disputes in favor of economic issues like the price of Iranian natural gas. The two sides also signed eight cooperation agreements and discussed using local currencies for bilateral trade.

While Ankara and Tehran have had conflicting regional policies for decades, the visit served to underscore the fact that Turkey’s interests in the region don’t fully align with those of its Sunni Arab neighbors. Unlike most of them, Turkey welcomed the framework nuclear agreement between international negotiators and Iran – indeed, it is among the countries that would likely benefit most from an ease of sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Remarks by high-level Turkish officials – including Erdoğan’s spokesman, the economy minister and the finance minister – have all highlighted Turkey’s financial stakes in the event of a final deal.

Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on Turkey. Find her on Twitter: @MerveTahiroglu


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