Turkish Land Forces Commander General Ilker Basbug surprised some by announcing a partnership between Turkey and Iran in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization (Cumhuriyet, June 6). In fact, the debate on choosing Iran as a close partner is not new. In 2002, the then secretary of the National Security Council, General Tuncer Kilinc, suggested that “Turkey should be in search of new partnerships with Iran and Russia because the European Union does not help us at all” (Turkish Daily News, March 9, 2002; Sabah, March 3). The general’s remarks received harsh criticism from the Turkish press and other political observers at the time (Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, May 8, 2002).
This begs the question: What forms the common ground for Turco-Iranian relations? Is it a strategic partnership to smash the PKK, or is it a fundamental policy shift as Gen. Kilinc suggested back in 2002?
The answers to these questions lie in the future U.S. position on the issue of northern Iraq in general and the status of Kirkuk in particular. Prof. Umit Ozdag, who maintains close ties with the military, argues that Turkey and Iran grew closer because the United States ignored Turkey’s vital interests in northern Iraq and used the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK—Iranian Kurdish militants closely allied to the PKK) as its proxy against Iran, which eventually forced Iran to target both the PKK and PJAK. In other words, the dynamics of U.S.-Iranian relations have produced cooperation between Iran and Turkey based on “mutual interests.”
The liability of the relationship, however, as Ozdag suggests, is that Iran is not on the same page with Turkey when it comes to maintaining the unity of Iraq. In addition, Iran’s policy on the Kirkuk issue is to support the Kurdish position on autonomy/independence, which contradicts Turkey’s position on a unified Iraq (umitozdag.com, May 25, 2007). Retired General Tuncer Kilinc put emphasis on similar points: “Given its location there are competing pressures on Turkey. Whereas its Western partners want to see Turkey on their side against Iran, Turkey’s position requires it to maintain its ties with Iran. In other words, Turkey cannot afford to follow a uni-dimensional foreign policy given its geography and economic ties. Therefore Turkey should seek new partnerships with Russia, Iran, China, and India and conduct its foreign policy through mutually-reinforcing institutions” (Referans, March 23, 2007). The rationale behind Turkey’s strategic thinking was revealed by Gen. Basbug in 2006. In his inaugural speech on the occasion of assuming the command of the Turkish Land Forces on August 25 of that year, Gen. Basbug revealed: “Given the fact that some states [i.e., the United States] and groups [i.e., the Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq] do not take effective measures against the PKK terror, before finding a solution for the Kirkuk problem, we should develop strategies to force them to take effective measures” (kkk.tsk.mil.tr, August 25, 2006).
Perhaps one axis of Turkish strategy is to cooperate with Iran on the issue of the PKK. However the question is what would this cooperation produce? Would it turn into a new partnership between Iran and Turkey? For its own part, Iran is playing a smart game to avoid any steps that may harm its relations with Turkey. For instance, when Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad visited the Armenian capital in 2007 he cut off his visit a day early and returned to Iran, thus avoiding an obligatory visit to the Armenian Genocide memorial site that could have disturbed relations with Turkey (VOA, October 22, 2007). In addition, for the last two years Iran has not allowed its Armenian community to carry out its traditional April 24 commemoration of the events of 1915 by organizing demonstrations in Tehran or marching to an Armenian church located near the Turkish embassy (Zaman, April 25).
Secondly, Iran, trying to escape from U.S. sanctions, has tried to put Turkey in a situation where it must choose between the United States and Iran. In fact, on the eve of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Turkey in November 2007, President Ahmadinejad rushed to offer Turkey its cooperation against the PKK (Aksam, October 29, 2007). Three days later, Rice offered actionable real-time intelligence sharing (Milliyet, November 2, 2007). Iran then raised the bid by offering Turkey the opportunity of conducting joint operations against the PKK after Turkish troops began launching operations against PKK camps in northern Iraq with the help of the new U.S. intelligence (Hurriyet, April 14).
On the issue of a nuclear-powered Iran, the Turkish position was recently stated clearly by the chief of the General Staff, General Yasar Buyukanit: “Iran is under the spotlights of Turkey and the rest of the world. Iran’s nuclear program should be limited to civilian purposes and Iran should assure the international community about its intentions. It is important for a nuclear-free, peaceful and stable Middle East to follow commonsense policies to avoid new problems” (Ihlas Haber Ajansi, June 5; Star, June 5). However, the question remains as to whether Turkey would support the United States in the case of military action against Iran’s nuclear sites. Experts on the subject observe that there has not been any tension between Turkey and Iran in regards to the nuclear issue in the last three years . Gokhan Cetinsaya, a leading expert on Turkish-Iranian relations, thinks that the foreign policy parameters, if not dramatically changed, at least indicate that Turkey cannot support American initiatives including economic sanctions and a future military operation against Iran .
Beside these strategic calculations, growing anti-EU and anti-American sentiments in Turkey also reinforce the possibility of improving relations with Iran. While the government’s motivation for establishing good relations with Iran is driven solely by strategic interest, those who find themselves in the neo-nationalist camps, including some high-ranking security bureaucrats, support Iran based on anti-West sentiments. For instance, Gen. Basbug’s revelation that “Turkey is cooperating with Iran” received wide support from neo-nationalist figures.
The future of Turkish-Iranian relations has two bases. The first base is cooperation against the PKK. Given the fact that Iran badly needs Turkey in its struggle against PJAK, it would offer limited military support to Turkey against the PKK. Iran would not provide full support to Turkey to end the PKK problem permanently because the PKK problem is the only issue that keeps Turkey close to Iran. If Turkey could successfully end the PKK problem with U.S. help, then there is no reason for Turkey to harm its relation with the United States by seeking Iran’s support.
The most support for cooperation with Iran, however, comes from ideologically-oriented neo-nationalist groups. As long as the EU project requires new reforms to democratize Turkish domestic politics, neo-nationalist support for Iran will continue. The key issue here is who will be holding the key administrative posts: Neo-nationalist figures or pro-Western bureaucrats? With the intense competition between Europeanists and Eurasianists reaching its highest point yet, the coming months will be critical in deciding the direction of Turkey’s security and foreign policy.
1. SETA (Siyaset, Ekonomi ve Toplum Arastirmalari Vakfi) Policy Brief, February 2008, No. 7
2. Gokhan Cetinsaya, “Tarihsel Perspektifte Turkiye-Iran Iliskileri ve Nukleer Sorun,” SETA Iran Dosyasi, July 2006 p.6; available online at www.setav.org