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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2966

Iran and Turkey: Towards a Patch-up?

Dr. Abdul Ruff Colachal

One of major bottlenecks causing dangers to global Muslims, Islam and its unity has been the infighting, mediocrity, insensibility, hatred and intolerance that get displayed in relations among Muslim nations. This has been happening in Islamic world, in spite of the serious threat to Islam from anti-Islamic forces and insults being unleashed on Muslims the world over. In fact, even many Muslim nations have used the "terrorism format" to settle scores among themselves, as the case of Pakistan-Afghanistan. In countries where Muslims are in minority, one group of Muslims considers the other as the main enemy; that's how the majority system operates in non-Islamic world. Relationships among the Arab nations are a case in point, but Turkey-Iran ties would be focused here.


Until the 20th century, the interaction between Iran and Turkey evolved around the historical Ottoman-Persian and Shia-Sunni rivalries. These two big, neighboring empires had been in latent conflict since they were rivals for the leadership of the whole Islamic world. Although Iranians were successful in agitating and sometimes mobilizing small dissident groups (mainly the Alevi) inside the Ottoman lands, the Ottomans, however, were able to overcome the problems and restrict any Shia expansionism. This nature of the traditional relations had changed by the end of the First World War with the establishment of a new republic in Turkey in 1923 and the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran in 1924. Turkey rejected the Ottoman legacy, abandoned any territorial and religious claims, and adopted a nationalist stance in foreign policy that excluded pan-Turkish and pan-Islamic aspirations. The main concern was to Westernize and modernize the country.

On April 22, 1926, the first "Treaty of Friendship" between Iran and Turkey, signed in Tehran. The basic principles included friendship, neutrality and nonaggression towards each other. The agreement also included possible joint actions to groups in the territories of both countries which would try to disturb peace and security or who would try to change the government of one of the countries. This policy was indirectly aimed at the internal problems both countries had with their Kurdish minorities. After the establishment of the Turkish republic, which ended the caliphates and sultanate in Turkey, there have been several Kurdish rebellions since the 1920s.

In July, 1937, a Treaty of Non-aggression is signed between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. This treaty will be known as the Sa'adabad Pact. The purpose of this agreement was to ensure security and peace in the Near East. August 1955. Establishment of CENTO (Central Treaty Organization), a mutual security-pact between Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan and Britain. In July 1964, establishment of RCD (Regional Cooperation for Development), aimed at joint economic projects between Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.

The relations between Iran and Turkey have been generally peaceful since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, but sometimes have also been strained. A period of coldness passed after the 1979 Iranian Revolution which caused major changes in Iran and the world's status quo. Today Iran and Turkey cooperate in a wide variety of fields that range from fighting terrorism, drug trafficking, and promoting stability in Iraq and Central Asia.

Iran and Turkey also have very close trade and economic relations. Both countries are part of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). Turkey receives many Iranian tourists each year and economically benefits from Iranian tourism. Bilateral trade between the nations is increasing. In 2005, the trade increased to $4 billion from $1 billion in 2000.

The revolution had left about 4 million Iranian refugees spread around the world and a large number went to or through Turkey. Estimates differ outlandishly. Some put the figure as low as 250,000, others as high as 1 million.(31) A better estimate might be between 600,000 to 800,000. That huge number of Iranian people inside Turkey posed major threats to Turkish domestic stability and its relations with Iran. Iran accused Turkey of not only permitting but even assisting anti-regime activities, particularly by the Mujahedin-i Khalq Organization (MKO).

Today: Gas trade

Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Ertugrul Apakan who on a state visit to Tehran said on 30 June that Tehran and Ankara have the potential to boost relations in political, parliamentary, economic and cultural fields and recommended frequent exchange of high-ranking delegations. In a positive tone, recently, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Alireza Sheikh-Attar has said that Iran and Turkey are determined to improve relations in all fields. Turkey welcomed the expansion of trade between the two countries and Apakan said that the Iran-Turkey Joint Economic Commission plays a vital role in this connection. Sheikh-Attar and Apakan exchanged views on the leading regional and international developments.

Turkey, a European power, imports energy resources from Arab world as well as Russia, a major oil and gas producer. The Islamic Republic of Iran normally exports 30 million cubic meters of natural gas to Turkey per day, while it imports roughly 23 million daily from Turkmenistan. Meanwhile, Russia's Gazprom also has said it has increased its exports to Turkey to close the deficit.

Turkey in turn supplies gas to Greece. Iran turned off its gas exports to Turkey on Jan. 7 citing a domestic shortage and cold weather, triggering a domino effect as Turkey in turn shut off its exports to Greece through a newly opened pipeline. Iran says a cut in supplies from Turkmenistan has prompted Tehran to suspend its exports in order to meet demand at home amid freezing temperatures. Iran had said earlier that it would restore its gas flow to Turkey by Jan. 14, but after the deadline came and went Turkey is still buying liquefied natural gas from the spot market to meet demand at home.

Tehran and Ankara are still in talks on resuming Iranian gas flows to Turkey, Energy Minister Hilmi Guler said recently, adding that Turkey had no immediate plans to restore its gas flow to Greece. The Turkish minister said on the sidelines of a conference in Istanbul that they are still in talks with Iran and they do not need to turn the gas back on to Greece, because they don't need it now.

Issue of Kurds

The issue of Kurds has been a major irritant in their ties. Turkey's treatment of its citizens of Kurdish origin has been a frequent subject of international criticism. Due to the size of their community, the Kurds are viewed as a threat to Turkey's national security. Kurds have largely resisted forcible assimilation policies of the government since 1930s. The main official strategy for assimilating the Kurds has been suppression of their language. Most Kurds have retained their native tongue, despite the governmental efforts over several decades to promote Turkish among them.

Turkey has been way of fight being waged by Jurdish freedom fighters who seek a spearate nation for themselves. Turkish government has undertaken all possible measures including war to quell the freedom movement. but with no fruits. Now Iraqi Kurds also join them to fight for a nation for them together. Today, most Kurds in Turkey live in big cities (like Istanbul) or in Southeastern Turkey. Kurds comprised around 8.5 million out of a total population of 35 million in Turkey (24%). Another estimate puts Kurds somewhere between 11,400,000[ and 15,000,000 people.

Kurdish freedom fighting armed movements such as the PKK and KADEK continue to mount actions against the Turkish state and are held responsible for approximately 35,000 casualties of civilians and troops over the past two decades. The PKK, which has bases in northern Iraq, has been fighting for self-rule in southeastern Turkey since 1984. Tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict. The main rebel camp is on Mount Qandil, which sits on the Iraqi-Iranian border. In recent months, the Turkish military has launched several air-strikes on Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq. Iran also has shelled northern Iraq. Tehran says rebels from PEJAK, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, a group fighting for Kurdish rights in Iran, also have bases on Mount Qandil.

Turkey and Iran have been carrying out coordinated strikes on Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq and the two countries have been sharing intelligence and planned more coordinated attacks in the future against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and PEJAK, the group's Iranian wing. America is pressuring the Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, struggling with the closure case nowadays, over the Iranian nuclear standoff. Though it makes a big issue out of the Nuclear weapons allegedly being manufactured by Iran, the USA really knows and believes Iran has not reached the capacity to generate nuclear arms, yet all efforts are not for alternative energy production but for nuclear arms. Americans suggest a dual strategy against Iran: diplomacy and sanctions. They, in return, expect a change in the calculations made by the Islamic regime leadership in Iran, and to keep Iran in negotiations with the United Nations.

An Observation

The 1979 revolution changed most of the policies of Iran and all countries of the region, including Turkey, have been affected by this regime change. However, Iranian-Turkish relations during the revolutionary decade were mostly positively affected, particularly in economic terms. They continued to form the basic substructure of the bilateral relationship between these Islamic neighbors.

It seems US threat to Iran on its supposedly nuclear ambitions is more to do with the Kurds issue rather than the nuclear weapons, as ran emerging as a nuclear power wound not affect US fortunes in the region, rather that would ignite a stiff arms race in the region which cannot be avoided just like.

Turkey, a NATO member, is a close ally of the USA and Washington has been using its Turkish connection to pressurize Iran not only to give up Uranium enrichment program, but also keep itself away from Kurds movement. USA supported the Turkish bombing of Kurdish locations in Iraq which is under US occupation now.

Of late, irrespective of the US influence over Turkey, both Iran and Turkey have come to a sort of understanding that the contentious issues could be addressed through cooperation, not by continuous confrontations. However, the current low economic ties do not seem to support that view quite correctly. Needless to say that any improved relationship between these or, for that matter, any other two, neighboring Islamic nations will have a positive impact over the entire Islamic world. Will Iran and Turkey, two major powers, realize this at least now?

- Asian Tribune -

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