Prospects for Turkish-Iranian relations in 2016.
The most recent serious deterioration occurred immediately after the Khomeini revolution in 1979 when Iran tried to "export" its revolution. Turkey was among the target countries of this "export." Members of a Turkish delegation were shocked by the statement of religious leader Ruhollah Khomeini when he told them that he had designated one of his trusted men as his representative to propagate the Islamic Revolution in Turkey. The revolution may have had some marginal impact on Turkish society, but Turkey's secular regime remained unaffected as a whole.
Despite this background, Turkey did its best to persuade Western countries not to isolate Iran in the international community as it thought that keeping the channels of communications open would better serve the interests of both Iran and the international community.
When the dust of the revolution settled, Turkey and Iran again reached a modus vivendi to continue their good neighborly relations, without interfering in the other's internal affairs.
Turkey adopted a similar attitude in 2010, when Brazilian and Turkish leaders together announced they had been able to broker a deal to swap Iranian uranium stockpiles. Acting together with Brazil, Turkey proposed a deal aimed at freezing the program when the enrichment was still at the low level of 3 percent, a proposal that was turned down by the US.
Isolating a country the size of Iran will not easily deter it from acquiring uranium enriched to weapon degree. Destroying the physical nuclear facilities will not indefinitely block the implementation of the program, as long as Iran possesses the know-how. Hoping that a regime change in Iran will put an end to the nuclear program is not realistic because no matter which regime comes to power, Iran will not scrap the program. Bearing in mind all these factors, Turkey believes that maintaining hostile relations with Iran is not a solution. The only sound solution will be to defuse the tension and eliminate the root cause of the conflicts in the region.
Turkey and Iran have divergent interests and priorities in the Syrian crisis. Their perceptions of the roots of the crisis, as well as its solution, are radically different. The efforts for a negotiated solution are not expected to bear fruit in 2016. Therefore, the difference in their approach is likely to remain unchanged. It may even become more pronounced because the parties to the conflict in Syria will use the year 2016 to change the military balance in their favor in order to have the upper hand at the negotiating table. This may exacerbate Turkish-Iranian relations, which are at present far from being at a satisfactory level.
Iran's economy relies heavily on oil revenues. With dwindling oil prices, generous military spending of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps operating in Syria may grind to a halt. It is not easy to tell whether this may create a more suitable environment for the improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations in 2016.
The execution of the Shia cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia has further exacerbated the already volatile security situation in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is trying to set up a Sunni bloc against Iran. Turkey is faced with a difficult choice when it is invited to join this bloc because it tries to maintain good relations with both.
Saudi Arabia is a valuable friend of Turkey, but its priorities are different from those of Turkey.
Turkey has close ties with Iran, as well. They are important trade partners. Turkey imports around 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Iran. It cannot put this supply at risk, especially after the downing of the Russian fighter jet.
If Iran's nuclear deal with the P5+1 does not encounter a major setback, Turkey may benefit from the favorable environment that will emerge as a result of the normalization of relations between Iran and the West.
In other words, Turkish-Iranian relations offer both opportunities and challenges in 2016. Whether the two countries will be able to capitalize on them is difficult to foretell.
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