Vol. 4, No. 22 (November 15, 2011)
Azerbaijan and recent shifts in Turkish-Iranian relations
Political Risk Analyst
Menas Associates, London, UK
Relations between Turkey and Iran are in flux, and changes in the longstanding dynamics of cooperation and competition between them, amplified by the upheaval in the Middle East, Turkey’s foreign policy shifts and the new Eurasian energy calculus, are certain to be significant for the entire region and for Azerbaijan in particular.
Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the relationship between Turkey and Iran has alternated between subtle competition and public cooperation. For Turkey’s leadership, the spectre of revolutionary Islam in Iran and fears about a possible “Iranian scenario” at home have informed the thinking of many in Ankara. And for the post-1979 Iranian leadership, the presence of a secular, pro-Western NATO country on its Western border has been a cause for concern.
After the collapse of the USSR, Tehran and Ankara competed for influence in the newly independent states of Eurasia, with Iran playing the religious card and Turkey the ethnic one. This competition limited cooperation between them and at times led each to back Kurdish separatists on the territory of the other. However, after the AKP took power in Turkey in 2002, this changed. That party’s Islamist and populist roots opened the way to a warmer relationship with Iran at an ideological level, and the AKP government’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” alongside a desire to find markets and energy suppliers, provided pragmatic reasons for closer ties. Indeed, despite the tensions between Iran and the international community, Turkey in this period has sought to manage this relationship rather than engage in confrontation.
Disagreements, however, remain. Both Ankara and Tehran, for example, support the Arab revolutions, but they do so from different standpoints and for different reasons. The two countries cooperate closely on energy, but they disagree over the route Caspian hydrocarbons should take to world markets. They share some common interests in the Caucasus, but at the same time, they compete for influence and have very different approaches to regional security issues.
Recent events have both encouraged expanding cooperation and intensified competition in three key areas: the Middle East, missile defense, and security (including energy security) in the South Caucasus.
The Middle East. Iran’s antagonistic relationship with Israel has been a major difference between Tehran and Ankara, but the rapid deterioration of Turkish-Israeli ties has caused a significant shift in the geopolitics of the region. Turkey’s motivations in this case are mixed, but alongside genuine anger and domestic politics is the desire of Prime Minister Erdogan to become a champion of the “Arab street” and of the Palestinians in particular. Criticizing Israel and embracing the revolutionaries is enabling Turkey to outflank Iran. Tehran has traditionally seen itself as a key player in the region, but the bloody repression meted out by its Syrian ally and the secular nature of the revolutions is marginalizing Iranian influence and boosting Turkey’s. Put in simplest terms, Turkey appears to be on the side of the revolutions, while Iran does not.
Turkish-Iranian relations will be profoundly affected by the course of the Arab Spring. Civil war in Syria or Turkish intervention there would damage ties. If the AKP succeeds in setting itself up as “a model” for the revolutionary states, Tehran will become suspicious about losing regional influence.
These shifts have consequences for Azerbaijan. For years, Azerbaijan has endured complaints from Iran about its burgeoning defense and economic relationship with Israel; now it may have to endure them from its close ally Turkey, too. On September 19, Turkey’s ambassador to Baku, Hulusi Kılıç, stated that “the problem of a brotherly state should be a problem for Azerbaijan, too” and suggested that Azerbaijani oil exports to Israel via Turkey should be reconsidered. Worsening relations between Turkey and Israel might also lead Israeli pressure groups to align themselves with the Armenian diaspora, a move that would in turn worsen ties between Tel Aviv and Baku.
This places Azerbaijan in an awkward position. An escalation would leave Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel without Turkish support: for although Azerbaijan is mature enough to deal with other states alone, it has benefited from Turkey’s close cooperation with Israel, which served as a springboard for Baku’s own relationship, particularly in defense and joint industrial ventures. The harmonizing of Turkish and Iranian views on the Israel issue may therefore make it increasingly difficult for Azerbaijan to maintain close ties with the Israeli state.
Missile defense. Despite concerns about the AKP’s alleged slide into anti-Westernism and Islamism, Turkey has recently agreed to host part of NATO’s planned missile defense network, a network assumed to be aimed at Iran. The decision has provoked anger in Tehran, with Tehran warning that the system “will definitely have complicated consequences” and will not improve Turkey’s security. This is a serious, “hard security” issue which Tehran views as a direct threat and it may lead to a significant deterioration in ties.
The fact that Turkey has agreed to host the missile defense shield speaks volumes about its threat perception of Iran. Officially, both states have warm and peaceful ties, and to a large extent this is true; but clearly, officials in Ankara believe that Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program is a threat. Consequently, unless Turkey saw a real and direct benefit to its national interests, it would not provoke Iran by signing up to the project. Iran, as a result, is clearly revising its opinion of Turkey.
A breakdown in the security relationship between Iran and Turkey clearly affects Azerbaijan. Baku’s warm, multidimensional relationship with Ankara would take precedence, of course, but its ties with Iran would also have to be taken into account. Balancing between them would be difficult.
Security and Energy in the Caucasus. Ankara and Tehran are often portrayed as engaging in a kind of “soft war” in the Caucasus, with Turkey backing Azerbaijan and Iran backing Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The reality is more complex, but Iran does represent a vital lifeline to Armenia, a bridge that allows it to partially offset the Turkish-Azerbaijani closure of borders with Yerevan. At the same time, Turkey’s support is integral to Azerbaijan’s security strategy. Moreover, Iran’s support for pro-Islamic groups in Azerbaijan is countered by the normative example of Turkey as a secular Muslim state.
Both Turkey and Iran are publicly committed to a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but have different approaches. Turkey, after its attempt to promote a rapprochement with Armenia without consulting Azerbaijan, has linked improvement of bilateral ties with progress on Nagorno-Karabakh. Essentially, Turkey follows Azerbaijan’s line. Iran’s aim in contrast is twofold: to prevent Azerbaijani irredentism in northern Iran, and to limit the involvement of outside powers like the US and the EU in the region. Its main contribution is to insist that the conflict be settled through the negotiations of regional powers. At the same time and more subtly, both Turkey and Iran seek to decrease the others’ influence through promoting their own model of conflict resolution. Turkey conspicuously avoided including Iran in its Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform idea in 2008, while Iran has lobbied for a more active role in the peacemaking efforts.
Competition could emerge here, particularly if a peace settlement driven by Turkey reduced Iranian regional influence. By itself, that would not be sufficient to significantly damage Turkish-Iranian ties, but given the fragility and complexity of security in the South Caucasus, it could lead to a sudden shift in regional dynamics and spark confrontation.
Ultimately, security in the South Caucasus is in major ways a matter of perceptions. If Iran perceives that a successful, Turkish-led resolution to Nagorno-Karabakh increases the influence of Turkey—and by extension of NATO and anti-Iranian elements in Azerbaijan—it is likely to oppose it and act accordingly. For similar reasons, relations between Tehran and Ankara would deteriorate, if Turkey begins backing the EU in supporting a Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP) to bring Central Asian gas to Europe. Iran and Russia staunchly oppose the project, as it would limit their influence as “gateways” to Central Asia; but for Turkey, a TCGP would be a further step toward achieving its ambition of being a Eurasia-wide energy hub. An active Turkish embrace of this project would likewise be seen in Tehran as an unwanted Western penetration of the region.
In both these cases, Iran would likely stop viewing Turkey as a “Muslim” state and start seeing it—again—as a “Western” one, the agent of European and US expansion into the region. This tendency or the countervailing tendency would be reinforced and amplified by other aspects in their bilateral relationship. On its own, Turkish support for a Caspian gas pipeline is unlikely to be seen as a threat in Iran. But if it is coupled with NATO radar and missile bases in Turkey, closer cooperation with the US in Iraq, opposition to Iranian allies in the Middle East and warmer ties with Israel, then it would be viewed very negatively indeed. Turkey and Iran have a multidimensional partnership, and the alignment of multiple factors is a necessary condition to seriously affect ties.
The implications for Azerbaijan are twofold. On the one hand, Baku is more than capable of acting independently and balancing between the two powers even during temporary or one-dimensional disputes. Azerbaijan is an important state and has the capacity to sit tight during an argument between neighbors. But on the other, the reverse is also true. When Turkish-Iranian relations are good, Azerbaijan can enjoy better ties with both states, but if they deteriorate, Azerbaijan may be forced to make an either/or choice between them. Baku almost certainly would choose Turkey, given the nature of their relationship, but it would contribute to the polarization of geopolitics in the region. The constant challenge for Baku’s foreign policy is to balance between these two poles, as well as between many more in its neighborhood.