OPINION | Iran-Turkey Relations and Impossibility of Saudi-Turkish Strategic Coalition
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OPINION | Iran-Turkey Relations and Impossibility of Saudi-Turkish Strategic Coalition

By Hossein Mofidi Ahmadi

Rising tensions in Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the execution of top Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, by the Saudi government, have raised a question about possible impact of this issue on Iran's relations with Turkey.

OPINION | Iran-Turkey Relations and Impossibility of Saudi-Turkish Strategic Coalition

Of course, this question is part of a more important one: can Turkey and Saudi Arabia be considered as strategic allies within regional coalitions following the Arab Spring? It seems that important geopolitical and geo-economic considerations along with Iran's more prominent regional role following the nuclear deal will serve as important factors to preserve an acceptable level of political and economic relations between Iran and Turkey. By the way, due to identity-based, as well as political and security reasons, it seems very unlikely that Saudi Arabia and Turkey would be able to form a strategic alliance in order to manage post-Arab Spring developments.

There is no doubt that following the so-called Arab Spring developments, different interpretations of these developments by Iran and Turkey and, as a result, formation of divergent coalitions and rivalries, which are aimed at infiltration and building regional institutions by these two important regional actors, have caused a certain level of tension and suspicion to overshadow relations between Tehran and Ankara. This tension and suspicion will apparently continue as long as the current atmosphere of uncertainty exists in the region. The point, however, is that there are many geopolitical and geo-economic factors that have guaranteed and will continue to guarantee maintenance of an acceptable level of political and economic relations between Iran and Turkey. In fact, relations between Iran and Turkey must be considered as a successful example in which ideological and identity-based differences have not been able to have a remarkable impact on political and economic relations between two countries. Among these geopolitical and geo-economic factors and reasons one can point out vast economic exchanges between the two countries, especially in the field of energy (a factor whose role will probably become more prominent in view of recent tensions in relations between Russia and Turkey), the two countries’ general strategy for maintaining regional nation-states, and their common concerns about activities of secessionist Kurds.

Another important point with regard to this issue is the dynamism related to Iran's agreement with the P5+1 group of countries over Tehran’s nuclear program. Turkey has not ignored the possibility of Iran turning into the most important, or at least one of the most important, strategic partners of the West in medium and long terms. Such a development, which from the viewpoint of Turkish officials will be accompanied with more prominence of a more pragmatic model of governance in Iran, will most probably boost the Islamic Republic's role in the management of regional crises.

Of course, possible developments in Iran's relations with Turkey must be also considered within a wider context, which is strategic or tactical nature of interactions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt that following the so-called Arab Spring developments, the crises in Syria and Yemen, and recent incidents, which led to the severance of political ties between Tehran and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is now trying to bolster regional coalitions pivoted around Riyadh. However, there are serious doubts about a strategic coalition taking shape between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Such doubts, of course, are based on identity-related, political and security factors.

The identity-related aspect of this issue stems from the problem that the Wahhabi reading of Islam is by no means in line with the dominant reading of Islam in Turkey and is not also backed by Islamist groups in that country. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s evident animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood and its religious discourse against this group are among major reasons that intensify innate suspicions on the part of Turkish Islamist groups toward Saudi Arabia. An evidence to the point in this regard is that in a rare instance in Turkey, Islamist analysts concurrent with secular analysts have issued warnings through the country’s media and academic circles about a foreign policy decision by Turkey to join the so-called anti-terror coalition led by Saudi Arabia. This issue is important in that Islamist groups and currents in Turkey must be considered among the most influential political, social and economic currents in the political sphere of Turkey and also within the country’s government.

The political aspect of the above issue is that Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and Iran, is one of those countries that have a claim to offering a model of governance subsequent to the Arab Spring developments, which of course, is far from the model of governance purported by Saudi Arabia. Turkish officials believe that Ankara's model is a combination of freedom seeking and the quest for Islamic identity, which will relieve citizens in regional countries from the purgatory of having to choose between the currently dominant authoritarian models, or Islamist groups that are theocratic both potentially and in practice. A case in point, which shows the difference between these models of governance, was evident in remarks made by the Turkish government spokesperson following Saudi Arabia's recent execution of Sheikh Nimr. In fact, by saying that Ankara is against all kinds of capital punishment, especially those handed down on political grounds, the spokesperson of the Turkish government highlighted this difference. From another angle, Ankara's willingness to play a mediatory role between Iran and Saudi Arabia only gains prominence within the framework of this model, which is eyed by the Turkish officials, not through strategic coalition with a country, which is essentially different from Turkey in terms of both identity and model of governance. It must be noted that Turkish officials have recently announced that they can play a positive role through diplomatic channels to reduce the existing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The security aspect of the above issue must be sought in the big population of Alawite and Shia Muslims that live in Turkey. This means that, possible strategic partnership in sectarian coalitions will have negative security effects on Turkey by widening religious and ethnic gaps within the country. By the way, revival of sectarianism in the Middle East will have a negative impact on trade-oriented and export-based economy of Turkey; an economy which has suffered great damage in recent years due to proximity of this country to restive regions in the Middle East.

It seems that indirect and tactical alignment of Turkey with the Saudi-led anti-terror coalition and such plans as establishment of a “strategic cooperation council” between Turkey and Saudi Arabia are mostly aimed at taking advantage of financial and economic capacities of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf littoral countries in order to improve the current unfavorable economic conditions of Turkey – which is now facing a new challenge as a result of sanctions imposed by Moscow on Ankara – and to get Saudi Arabia closer to Turkey’s policies and plans for the period of political transition in Syria. By the way, Turkey may be also trying to maintain a high level of political and economic relations with Iran, which is due to more prominence of Iran's role in the region following the conclusion of the nuclear deal. Of course, developments that followed the Arab Spring and the rivalry between the two countries for building their desirable institutions in the region will continue to overshadow these relations.

About The Author:

Hossein Mofidi Ahmadi, Ph.D. in International Relations &
Visiting Researcher at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies

Key Words: Iran, Turkey, Relations, Regional Position, Saudi-Turkish Strategic Coalition, Arab Spring, Geopolitical and Geoeconomic Factors, P5+1, Agreement, Muslim Brotherhood, Middle East, Mofidi Ahmadi

The article was originally published at IranReview.org.
All rights reserved by the original publisher


More By Hossein Mofidi Ahmadi:

*Ankara’s Recent Terrorist Attacks and Turkey’s Domestic and Foreign Campaigns:http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Ankara-s-Recent-Terrorist-Attacks-and-Turkey-s-Domestic-and-Foreign-Campaigns.htm

*Turkey Aims to Regain Past Position as Governance Model by Cooperating with Anti-Daesh Coalition:http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Turkey-Aims-to-Regain-Past-Position-as-Governance-Model-by-Cooperating-with-Anti-Daesh-Coalition.htm