Turkey’s Tactical Rapprochement With Iraq and Iran

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 27

(Source: Reuters)

Turkey has been steadily diversifying its energy transit policy and pursuing its goal of becoming a hub country for the rest of the region. In particular, Turkey reached an agreement with Russia on developing the Turkish Stream project (also known as “Turk Stream”—see EDM, December 17, 2014; January 22, 2015); and in December 2014, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Ibadi participated in the High-Level Strategic Cooperation meeting held in Ankara to discuss security and energy issues (Hurriyet Daily News, December 25, 2014). These two developments have catalyzed discussions on delivering Iraqi oil and gas to European markets via Turkey. Consequently, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz visited Iraq on January 18, to consider new projects, including the development of pipelines from the southern Iraqi province of Basra to northern Iraq. The project will involve the oil pipeline network in Iraq’s Kirkuk province (Anadolu Agency, January 16). At a January 14 press conference before his trip, Minister Yildiz revealed that the 46th shipment of Kurdish oil had already been loaded in Turkey and exported to world markets. “The total of exports of Kurdish oil to Turkey has reached 37 million barrels. Some 450,000 barrels are exported to Turkey daily. We are working to increase this volume to 550,000 barrels per day,” he noted (Hurriyet Daily News, January 18).

The relationship between Turkey and Iraq has been running a mostly negative course over the past eight years. Ankara has been visibly proactive in shaping Iraq’s domestic politics. After supporting Iraq’s anti-Shia political coalition, it has continued to back Sunni Arab elites and the Turkmen groups in Iraq until the present day. Developing a close relationship with the Iraqi Kurds from 2012 onwards has also enabled the Turkish government to strengthen its position both domestically and within Iraq against Shia elites. The main reason underlying Turkey’s actions in Iraq was Ankara’s opposition to Shia Prime Minister Nouri El Maliki (2006–2014) in Baghdad, whom Turkey perceived as having anti-Turkish sentiments and close relations with Iran. Notably, El Maliki preferred to follow a foreign policy that bypassed Turkey in matters of regional cooperation. Ankara concluded that its rival Tehran was behind El Maliki’s regional policies (Cengiz Candar, Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History, 2012, pp. 261–322).

In 2014, the general election in Iraq was followed by a prolonged crisis concerning the appointment of the prime minister and members of the cabinet. The crisis was resolved, in part, thanks to Turkey’s support for the Sunni Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish elites, with Shia politician Haider al-Abadi becoming appointed as the new Iraqi head of government (Al Jazeera–Turk, August 16, 2014). Aiming to relieve the tension between the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, Iraq’s new prime minister initiated long negotiations that eventually resulted in the appointments of a Sunni, Saleh El Mutlaq, and former foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari (a Kurd) as the new deputy prime ministers of Iraq. According to members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (Pasdaran), their close ally and former Iraqi prime minister El Maliki was forced to resign due to political and psychological pressures exerted upon him in the name of “protecting Iraq’s territorial integrity.” It is believed that Iran was actively involved in this resignation (Ankara Strategic Institute, September 11, 2014).

Another reason for escalating tensions between Turkey and Iraq was the improvement, in 2012, of energy relations between Ankara and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The KRG succeeded in developing its energy cooperation with Turkey despite Baghdad’s efforts to block this deal. Erbil proved highly decisive in ensuring its own oil was exported to the global market via Ceyhan in Turkey. Despite its best efforts, Baghdad failed to scuttle the Turkey-KRG agreement (Hurriyet Daily News, May 24, 2014).

Yet, as pointed out by Associate Professor Saban Kardas, “In 2014, the emergence of the threat from ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—also known as the Islamic State] forced both Iran and Turkey to review and revise their policies regarding Iraq.” According to Kardas, who also serves as the president of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), “It soon became evident that Iran would not oppose its Shiite partners in Iraq from cooperating with Turkey. We observe two reasons underlying this support: the extension of the longstanding cooperation between Turkey and Iran into the energy realm, and secondly, Iraq is running a very real risk of complete disintegration due to the danger posed by ISIS.” The combination of these two developments have brought Iran, Iraq and Turkey tactically closer together. As Kardas noted, “Iraq’s preference for the relatively safer port in Ceyhan instead of the alternative [export] routes that have now become dangerous due to [encroachments by Islamic State forces] has improved Turkey’s role in energy geopolitics. Turkish Stream with Russia, new energy partnership with Iraq and agreements about Iranian gas all offer new opportunities to Turkey within the realm of energy geopolitics” (Author’s interview, January 29, 2015)

In European energy politics, the growing void resulting from the suspension of the German-Russian partnership over Moscow’s aggressive actions in Ukraine is now being filled by emerging Turkish-Russian energy cooperation. This trend also makes the development of Turkey’s energy exchange and related infrastructure an immediate necessity. Turkey requires an investment of $120 billion to meet its goal of becoming a regional energy hub, according to the chairman of the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK), Omer Vardan (Deik.org.tr, January 26). Unless Turkey raises the investment needed by its domestic sector by 2023, this strategically positioned country may fail to capitalize on the regional and global opportunities currently before it