An extraordinary event took place when representatives of Turkey and Iran stood up to sign a preferential trade agreement last week. Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci remained standing in his place rather than sitting down at the table to sign. The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, looked questioningly at the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who looked back as if to say, “It’s all right.”
But it was not all right. It took a great deal of whispering between Davutoglu and the economy minister, as well as an irritated hand motion that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan aimed at Zeybekci, before the latter would sit down and sign.
In examining the reason for Zeybekci’s hesitation, Turkish columnist Murat Yatkin found that the Iranians had added a new paragraph to the agreement that the economy minister found unsatisfactory. Faruk Logoglu, a high-ranking official of the opposition party, had a different explanation: “The agreement was written only in Farsi, not in Turkish.”
It appears that neither of these reasons were important enough for Erdogan to alter his position. Not only was an important economic agreement at stake, but so was the beginning of the rehabilitation of Turkey’s shattered foreign policy.
In August 2012 Erdogan, angered by Iran's depiction of Turkey as having conspired with the West on Syria, spoke of the close ties his country used to have with Iran before taking Tehran to task for its position on the Syrian civil war. "When no one else was by its side, Turkey stood by Iran, despite everything. Turkey defended its right to nuclear energy," said Erdogan. Then he added: "On Syria, once again I ask the Iranians: Does defending a regime that kills its brothers, and I think it has reached 25,000 by now, suit our values?”
A year and a half later, when an estimated 100,000 Syrians had been added to the death toll of that time, Erdogan stated for all the world to hear that Iran was his second home.
Last week, Erdogan paid an official visit to Tehran with a group of economic ministers to rebuild the relations between Turkey and Iran that had been damaged by the war in Syria. This time, Erdogan did not criticize his hosts. On the contrary, the leaders of Iran and Turkey decided to establish a council for economic cooperation. They also signed a preferential trade zone agreement that they had been working on for a decade, and Iran expects that trade with Turkey will grow from $20 billion in 2013 to $30 billion in 2015.
“Our relationship with Turkey is entering a new level, and we hope that this trend will continue,” said Iran Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham. In two months, Iranian President Hassan Rohani is to pay a reciprocal visit to Ankara, and it seems that the Iranian-Turkish front, which was a diplomatic battlefield for the past three years, is about to become a playing field.
The eagerness to sign the agreement with Iran, the only friend in the Middle East that Turkey has left, is based on a Turkish rereading of the political map. Based on that rereading, it is doubtful that Washington will be able to cause the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and in any case, there is no suitable candidate to replace him. Turkey is also afraid of the empowerment of radical movements, some of which are linked to Al-Qaida, which — unlike the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood — Turkey has no ability to influence.
“We need to ensure that in any development that takes place in Syria, its borders with Turkey will be safe,” a researcher at an institute of strategic research in Istanbul told Haaretz. “Among other things, that means finding ourselves a partner who can have an influence in Syria. We made a strategic error when we criticized Iran at the same time that we cut off relations with Syria. Now Iran is becoming the darling of the West, and Turkey stands orphaned with a policy that has ceased to be relevant. The truth is that it seems that Iran really doesn’t need us either. The days when Iran saw Turkey as a mediator between it and the West are over. Iran does not need mediation anymore, and Turkey’s role in anything having to do with Syria’s future has become marginal.” The researcher added that Turkey could one day find itself courting Assad if he turns out to be the only relevant leader who remains in Syria — particularly in light of the talks’ failure at the Geneva 2 conference on Syria.
Sources within Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, which last week lost another parliament member — Muhammed Cetin, who quit over a corruption case — are talking once again about how Davutoglu is responsible for Turkey's failed Iran policy and should pay the price.
“Nobody in the party blames Erdogan directly, but it is obvious that Davutoglu is not working independently,” said a journalist who works for the newspaper Today’s Zaman, which is owned by the movement founded by Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s main rival. “Now they are frantically trying to fix the damage that their policy caused over the past three years, not only with Syria, but also with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But instead of stopping for a moment and looking at the list of priorities, they are rushing forward once more. Just like Erdogan was the first to fly to welcome the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and then broke all the rules with the military regime, now he is trying to act early and rebuild relations with Iran. And what if the nuclear agreement should collapse? And what if tomorrow the Syrian regime, with help from Iran, kills 30,000 to 40,000 more Syrians? How will Erdogan justify deepening his relationship with Iran?”
How fortunate that policy is not a religious belief and can always be changed. It is only a matter of price.
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