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Turkey's Domestic Controversy Unfolds Amidst Increasing Ties with Iran


By Shayan Ghajar,

Events the past few weeks in Turkey indicate that a sea change is occurring in the nation's domestic politics. Prime Minister Erdogan's maneuvering against the traditionally untouchable military marks a new phase in Turkey's history. This shift in Turkey's domestic politics follows a more gradual but no less relevant shift in its foreign policy, and likely indicates even greater changes to come. Mutual trade, investment, and tourism are growing between Turkey and Iran, and the two nations are increasingly in accord on three of the regions biggest security issues, namely the Middle East peace process, Iran's nuclear program, and Kurdish separatism.

Simultaneously, American policy has been increasingly out of step with Turkey's vision for its future. The recent American congressional vote to declare the Armenian deportations and relocations a genocide will certainly have damaged Turkish-American relations for the foreseeable future, and will be yet another factor in Turkey seeking alternative allies in the region.

Diplomatic contact between Iran and Turkey has increased in frequency and intensity in recent months, starting with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's visit to Iran in October 2009. Concurrently with Erdogan's visit, Iran announced that Turkey was investing $4 billion into Iran's South Pars gas field, which holds one of the largest gas reserves in the world. Shortly after Erdogan's visit, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated that there are "no limitations to increasing ties" with Turkey. Since then, a plethora of meetings at all levels of government have occurred between the two nations, marking a significant increase in bilateral agreements on political and economic issues.

Erdogan with Iranian FM Mottaki in Tehran - October 2009

Many of these meetings have focused on economic cooperation and strengthening the financial interdependence of the two nations, especially in recent weeks with the inaugural meeting of the Developing 8 (D-8) economic consortium in Tehran. The D-8 consists of eight developing nations with largely Muslim populations-Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Turkey-and is intended to foster greater economic ties and facilitate development of vital industries, especially in the energy and manufacturing sectors. The next meeting, in 2011, will be held in Turkey.

On March 3, Iran and Turkey signed a "memorandum of understanding" during the D-8 meetings in Tehran. The memorandum of understanding pledges cooperation in numerous manufacturing fields, specifically "auto-manufacturing and supply of spare-parts, construction industry, agricultural machinery and equipment industries and wood and paper industries," Fars News reports.

The strain in Turkish-Israeli relations since the Gaza offensive that ended in January has only deepened with Erdogan stating in February that any Israeli strikes against Iran's nuclear program would be a "disaster of unpredictable consequences." The Iranian media have been delighted with Erdogan's stance on Israel, and his quotes condemning the situation in Gaza frequently appear in the state news agencies.

Turkey has largely sided with Iran on the nuclear issue against its American ally as well. Turkish officials have repeatedly made statements supporting Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program, the latest coming from the Turkish Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Ali Shahin. The Wall Street Journal reported on March 4 that Washington is finding it increasingly difficult to make any headway urging Turkey to support sanctions against Iran, receiving the same rejoinder from Erdogan that Israel's nuclear weapons should be investigated as much as Iran's every time the subject is broached.

Iran and Turkey also share security concerns regarding the large presence of Kurds in the border areas between the two nations and Iraq. Both nations have been engaged in military campaigns for decades against Kurdish separatists. Sahar Zubairy of Foreign Policy Blogs alleges that Iran and Turkey have collaborated in their military efforts against these Kurdish groups.

A final consideration for the ties between both nations, and perhaps one of the most significant, is the instability of the ruling parties' positions domestically. Erdogan has pitted all his political assets against the military, Turkey's most powerful traditional establishment. The ultra-conservative Iranian newspaper Kayhan wrote an article (Farsi language) describing protests in Istanbul against the alleged military coup plot in heroic terms, and all of Iran's state-run news agencies have almost daily carried articles in the past few weeks praising more arrests of conspirators against Erdogan.

Similarly, the Turkish news service Taraf-the same agency to which documents were leaked incriminating the Turkish military in the alleged coup plot weeks ago-carried an article (Turkish language) stating the Iranian people had demonstrated their support for the Islamic Republic on February 11, Revolution Day in Iran, contrary to Western-backed dissident groups.

This mutual moral support against domestic opposition groups demonstrates that the insecurity of both regimes in the face of home-grown dissent has increased their need for regional allies more than ever before. And at a time when America and Turkey drift farther apart, Iran seems a more appealing regional ally than ever.

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