Turkey’s warming of relations with Russia following the failed coup in Turkey has been the focus of much analysis during the past month. However, an equally—if not more—important development, the improvement of Turkey’s relations with Iran after the coup, has gone largely unreported if not totally unnoticed. This latter development, one must admit, has been in the making for some time and is not exclusively the result of the failed putsch. Nonetheless, the coup attempt and its failure have given a major boost to the Turkey-Iran relationship.
The improvement has taken place despite the fact that Iran, like Russia, is a principal supporter of the Assad regime in Syria, which was until recently Ankara’s bête noire. A number of factors have contributed to this development. First, the Turkish government has come to realize in the past few months that ISIS, not Assad, should be its primary concern in Syria. This realization dawned upon Ankara with the escalation of ISIS’s terror attacks in the country, which have left scores of people dead. The attack on the Istanbul airport on June 28, which killed forty-one people, proved to be the final blow that exploded the myth that Assad posed a major threat to Turkish security. It made clear that Syria’s neighbors—Iran, Iraq and Turkey—faced a common, some would even say existential, threat in the shape of ISIS. It further made clear that Iran and Turkey must move toward devising a joint strategy in order to eliminate this threat.
Assad thus became a secondary problem from Turkey’s perspective. Turkey’s changing stance toward the Assad regime was evident from the statement made by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım on July 13 that “I am sure that we will return [our] ties with Syria to normal. . . . We need it. We normalised our relations with Israel and Russia. I’m sure we will go back to normal relations with Syria as well.” This change in the Turkish stance has paved the way for the improvement of relations with Iran, which is actively involved in defending the Syrian regime indirectly through its ally Hezbollah and directly through elements of the IRGC in advisory and sometimes battlefield roles against Syrian insurgents.
Secondly, the Syrian insurgency has brought home the fact both to Ankara and Tehran that the principal beneficiaries of the breakup of Syria—which is likely to happen if Assad falls—will be the Syrian Kurds and especially the PYD, which has strong links not only to the PKK in Turkey but also to the PJAK, the Kurdish insurgent movement engaged in fighting Tehran. The PYD has moved in to control the bulk of the Kurdish areas in Syria as the Syrian regime’s control over these regions bordering Turkey and Iran has eroded. While initially this led to some acrimonious exchanges between Ankara and Tehran, with the former accusing the latter of encouraging Kurdish forces in order to destabilize Turkey, it soon dawned upon both that they had to cooperate in order to mitigate the damage that could be inflicted on the territorial integrity of both states by the Kurdish regions’ successful secession from the rest of Syria. Any form of Kurdish independence is anathema to both Turkey and Iran.
Third, the coming into force of the Iran nuclear deal last January, and the consequent lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, the EU, and the United States on Tehran, are perceived in both Ankara and Tehran as a major boost to their trade relations. Trade between the two countries had been hampered by the imposition of financial restrictions on Iran, which prevented Turkey from paying for the energy resources it imported from Iran, therefore restricting the flow of gas and oil. Turkey traditionally buys about a quarter of its oil and about a fifth of its gas from Iran. The lifting of sanctions, according to projections made in both countries, is likely to triple the volume of trade between the two countries to $30 billion in two years.
While these underlying factors have been at work driving the two countries toward better relations, the failed coup has given added impetus to this movement. The Iranian leadership was genuinely concerned that a successful coup would destabilize not merely Turkey but the entire region and would have deleterious consequences for Iran itself. This was clearly demonstrated by the fact that Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, was in touch with his Turkish counterpart throughout the night of the coup, calling him at least four times during those fateful hours in order to, among other things, boost the Turkish government’s morale.