Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 74

On April 17 Turkey and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to increase cooperation on security issues. The agreement came during the 12th meeting of the Turkey-Iran High Security Commission, which began in Ankara on April 14 (see EDM, April 14). Although the details of any increased security cooperation currently remain unclear, Tehran and Ankara are expected to focus primarily on strengthening collaboration against Kurdish rebels: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which targets Turkey; and the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), which is active in Iran.

The MOU on security cooperation follows similar agreements on energy. On July 14, 2007, Turkey and Iran signed an MOU which foresaw the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) investing around $3.5 billion in the recovery and possible export via Turkey of natural gas from three different sections of Iran’s South Pars field, which has estimated recoverable reserves of around 14 trillion cubic meters (see EDM, August 13, 2007). Turkey already imports natural gas from Iran for its own use. In 2007 Turkey imported 6.2 billion cubic meters of gas from Iran, which is now the second largest supplier of natural gas to Turkey after Russia.

Gas imports have helped underpin the rapidly growing economic ties between Turkey and Iran. Bilateral trade reached $8 billion in 2007, up from $2.4 billion in 2003. Although there are signs that Turkish investors in Iran are concerned about a further tightening of UN sanctions against Tehran (Turkish Daily News, April 18), the Iranians have made no secret of their desire to strengthen economic relations still further. On April 17 the Iranian Khodro automobile company announced that it had received permission from the Iranian Ministry of Industry and Mining to build a car factory in western Turkey. The plant is currently expected to produce its first car in 2009 (Anadolu Ajansi, April 17).

Such enthusiasm for closer ties is in marked contrast to Turkey’s relationship with its other hydrocarbon-rich neighbor, Iraq. On April 14 the Iraqi Oil Ministry published a list of 35 foreign companies that had been prequalified to bid for future oil and gas contracts in the country. The list excluded the TPAO, which was one of 120 companies that applied for prequalification earlier this year.

It is possible that the Iraqi authorities excluded the TPAO on technical or financial grounds. That is not how the decision has been interpreted by many in Turkey, however,who have regarded the TPAO’s exclusion as a political snub, particularly as it came amid unconfirmed reports that the central government in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which administers the north of the country, have finally reached an agreement over the KRG’s disputed right to issue oil licenses for the territory under its control (UPI, April 16). Turkey has long argued that allowing the KRG to issue its own licenses would be a de facto recognition of its sovereignty in the north and could eventually lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state, something that Ankara rigorously opposes. The pro-government Turkish daily Sabah, which is owned by a close associate of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, expressed its outrage at what the Turkish government had expected to be the formality of the TPAO’s inclusion in the Iraqi Oil Ministry’s list. “Oil shock in Iraq!” ran Sabah’s front page headline (Sabah, April 17).

When pressed by Turkish journalists to comment, Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler tried to put a positive spin on the TPAO’s exclusion: “We have begun talks with the Iraqi authorities so that the TPAO can enter the list of companies. The list is not definite yet. There is no need for comments. There is certainly a list and we shall enter it” (Zaman, April 18).

To many in Turkey, however, the TPAO’s exclusion will be interpreted as another example of Iraq’s bad faith. Closer cooperation in energy was one of the main topics discussed during the visit of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to Ankara in early March (see EDM, March 10). However valid they may be, arguments that Talabani has little influence over decisions by the Iraqi Oil Ministry will convince few Turks.

In September 2007 Iraq and Turkey discussed practical measures to be taken against the PKK, which has its main bases in northern Iraq. In reality, the central government in Baghdad has little authority in the north of the country, but it has also been unwilling to press the KRG to take decisive measures against the PKK. Although KRG officials recently condemned the PKK several times as a terrorist organization, its militants are still able to move around northern Iraq and obtain supplies from the territory under KRG control with relative impunity.

In contrast, even before the April 17 MOU, Iran was already cooperating with Turkey against the PKK, sharing intelligence and even detaining and extraditing PKK militants found on Iranian territory to Turkey. There is no question that the Turkish government wants good relations with both Iran and Iraq, but for the time being at least, there is little doubt as to which country the majority of Turks believe is reciprocating.