Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a man who has played different roles at the top of Turkey’s hierarchy of power since March 2003. He was sworn in on August 28, 2014 as the 12th president of Turkey.
Erdogan, who was Turkish prime minister between 2003 and 2014, is the first president of the republic to have been directly elected into office in a popular vote. His presence on the political scene in the capacity of president comes at a time when strategies employed by his ruling Justice and Development (AK) party have undergone unpredictable changes as a result of recent developments in the region.
His presidency might either see the policies of the past carry on, or it may usher in reforms which could, in turn, prolong the years his party will remain in power. Turkey has experienced ups and downs in its relations with Iran over the years Justice and Development has been in power.
Prior to recent developments in the Arab world, Tehran and Ankara had common ground on many regional matters. However, following popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt which later found their way to Bahrain and Libya, the interests of the two countries diverged.
When Hassan Rouhani, who ran on a platform of moderation and détente, emerged victorious in Iran’s presidential vote, an opportunity to improve Tehran-Ankara relations presented itself.
Over the past year, many Iranian and Turkish officials have met at different levels. That’s why the two countries are likely to leave behind their regional disagreements and seek close cooperation to serve bilateral interests.
Etemad [Trust] newspaper has interviewed Iran’s Ambassador to Turkey Alireza Bigdeli to assess the likely impact of recent changes in Turkey on the country’s diplomatic apparatus, Tehran-Ankara ties under President Rouhani and the new Turkish government, and the probable effects of the Syrian crisis on Iran-Turkey relations. Etemad’s Sara Masoumi has conducted the interview the translation of which comes below:
Following the recent presidential election in Turkey, some officials have been replaced, although the leadership structure and strategy have stayed the same. From your perspective, what are the implications of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presence in the capacity of president and Ahmet Davutoglu at the helm of premiership for Turkey’s macro foreign policy?
Turkey’s foreign relations mostly depend on diplomacy which is a pillar of governance in the country, because it is capable of smoothly taking the country in the direction of national objectives at a low cost.
In my opinion, with Mr. Erdogan as president and Mr. Davutoglu as prime minister, former Minister of European Union Affairs and Chief Negotiator Mevlut Cavusoglu, who has now become foreign minister, is the only new key player on the diplomatic front.
Because of his previous position, Cavusoglu is well aware of foreign policy, so I think his presence in Davutoglu’s government can introduce some changes to Turkey’s foreign policy. He is pragmatic and can create new opportunities in Turkey’s diplomacy to ease tensions.
Davutoglu is well known among journalists for his zero-problems policy with neighbors, a theory which has at least faced a lot of challenges over the past few years. To what extent, will Turkey’s foreign policy change following its failure to deliver?
After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after in the wake of the First World War, politicians who rose to power in Turkey resorted to introversion in response to crucial threats to their country.
Given the trends which emerged in Turkey in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Mr. Davutoglu reached the conclusion that Turkey could only avert existential threats if it adopted a policy of extroversion and paid more attention to its surroundings.
In line with such policy, Turkey needed to first start with its neighbors. In other words, as a first step it had to settle its differences with its neighbors.
Iran-Turkey ties have seen ups and downs since the Revolution of 1979. At times, Turkey has been a close ally of some Iranian administrations and even sought to get involved in Iran’s nuclear talks. At other times, it has been a regional rival Iran has had to live with. From your perspective, what changes have Tehran-Ankara relations undergone since President Rouhani took office?
I think one should use caution in saying that Iran-Turkey ties have not been the same under different governments. Relations between countries are not subject to change that easily, because ties have roots in national interests and more importantly in national goals.
In fact, different governments have moved in different directions to obtain their national interests. Over the past year, ties between the two countries in the realm of hardware have moved in the direction of overcoming the obstacles created by sanctions. In the domain of software, efforts have been made to protect bilateral relations against the effects of the Middle East crisis.
Over the past year, the influence of media on the public opinion of Turkish people has, on the one hand, improved the image of Iran in Turkey and on the other hand, has presented Iran as a regional competitor.
The Geneva deal has taken the additional psychological pressure away from Tehran-Ankara relations. Nonetheless, it has raised concerns about the future of ties between the two nations when Iran finds a way out of this unfair atmosphere.
Turkey has made a lot of efforts to surpass sanctions and establish robust economic relations with Iran, either through negotiations or by winning over the Western countries. However, the private sector which handles much of Turkey’s economy has not taken the risk or has been reluctant to do so.
Of course, I should mention some examples of further interaction between the two countries which played a key role in maintaining and cementing the ties.
The following are just some of the high-level contacts: the Turkish prime minister’s visit to Iran in January 2014 and the preferential trade deal signed between the two nations, President Rouhani’s visit to Turkey in June 2014 and the first meeting of Iran-Turkey Supreme Strategic Cooperation Council, numerous meetings between officials of the two countries, three visits by the Turkish parliament speaker since President Rouhani took office, 12 meetings between the top diplomats of the two nations, the 24th joint Iran-Turkey Economic Commission and two visits by the special representatives of the presidents of Iran and Turkey.
To what extent, has the Syrian crisis had an impact on Tehran-Ankara relations? During the recent visits by Iranian officials to Turkey, has any effort been made to narrow the gap between the two countries on Syria?
The crisis in Syria is a symbol of geopolitical challenges during the period of transition. Even prior to the eruption of the crisis in Syria, there were conflicts over Damascus in the region.
I mean, since the matter of US troop withdrawal from Iraq was raised, Iran-Turkey relations were affected. Such assumptions can be substantiated by documents released by WikiLeaks.
The developments in the Middle East, especially after what happened in Libya, transformed the conflicts in Syria and gave them a military nature. Given the significance of Tehran-Ankara ties, and their interest in ensuring regional security at a minimum cost, the two countries agreed not to let their relations be influenced by regional conflicts.
Anyway, disagreement over Syria has come at a security cost, but the two countries know well that if such security complications found their way into mutual ties, the damage would be irreparable.
Aside from talks at presidential and foreign ministerial levels, there have been regular negotiations between deputy foreign ministers and diplomats of the both countries in Tehran, Ankara, and Baghdad. These talks are intended to boost common ground and minimize disagreements.
I think, these developments have set the stage for further cooperation and both sides are determined not to let their relations fall victim to regional developments.
Since the Syrian crisis began in 2011, we have seen Shiite-Sunni divisions deepen from Syria to Iraq to Bahrain. In your opinion, to what extent does Turkey follow the policy of containing the Axis of Resistance [a reference to Iran, Syria and the Lebanese Hizbollah] and Shiite currents in the region?
First of all, when we talk about Turkey, we should bear in mind that there are different lines of thinking and different political currents in this country.
Considering the parliamentary-party system there, people support three or four main parties and some 85 percent of those eligible to vote cast their ballots.
Given the regional concerns and threats, each country naturally adopts policies and implements them. At times, such political and economic concerns are coupled with security problems and could pose an existential threat to the country. […]
The approach by the Turkish government to developments in Iraq over the recent years has been far from neutral. At multiple critical junctures, Turkey has contacted Iraqi Kurds and even granted asylum to fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. Why are there open tensions in Ankara-Baghdad relations?
Such an approach stems from a mentality which we should not try to evaluate. In fact, we need to get to know it, because such a mentality will have an impact on Iran’s interests, and affect Iran’s ally: Iraq, the enter region, and the Muslim world at large.
In my estimation, developments in Syria have their roots in what is going on in Iraq. I already told you that after the idea of US troop withdrawal from Iraq was floated, things changed for Syria. The reason is crystal clear. Developments in Iraq have an effect on stability and security in Turkey. […]
I stress one more time that I do not intend to assess how things are being handled and describe it as either right or wrong. Given the great deal of uncertainty in the transition period, definitely whoever enters the scene to take action is sure that what he is doing is what must be done and only with time one will figure out whether such a policy has been right or not.
Many intelligence agencies brought up Turkey’s inaction against IS (the Islamic State) and raised the prospects of it supporting the terrorist group. Why did Ankara fail to take action when Kurds in Sinjar came under IS attack?
It is assumed that election campaigns and the kidnapping of Turkish diplomats at the hands of IS in Mosul have played a significant role in Turkey’s reaction. IS is a notorious group doomed to failure and only dysfunctional and failed governments can stay in touch with it. From my perspective, the Turkish government has nothing in common with IS.
How do you think the interaction between Erdogan’s government and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) will turn out?
The matter goes beyond the interaction with a group. It is part of a solution to which Erdogan and Davutoglu give top priority. I think along with the Turkish economy this matter is of great significance.
This is a major process that our Turkish friends are hoped to go through smoothly, because if they can pull it off, it will ensure stability along our borders with Turkey and develop new markets for Iran. On the contrary, failure of the plan could foment instability along the borders.
Will Turkey throw its weight behind the notion of an independent region ruled by Kurds in a way which Iraqi Kurds wish for?
The Turkish official stance is support for the Iraqi territorial integrity and its constitution.
Ankara-Tel Aviv relations have been tense during the years-long blockade of Gaza. Now that cracks have appeared in ties with Syria and Iraq, do you think Turkey will take steps towards normalizing its relations with Israel?
Turkey has set some preconditions before it normalizes relations with Israel. That indicates normalized ties with Israel are not a taboo from the viewpoint of Ankara, but I don’t think Syria or Iraq will have an affect on Turkey’s decision. In fact, what is important is Turkey’s national solidarity.
In his first address after being sworn in as president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan once more underlined Turkey’s willingness to accede to the European Union. Given the new political equations in the region, do you think the union between Turkey and the EU is likely?
The question has always been part of Turkey’s foreign policy. The current Turkish foreign minister used to be the minister of EU affairs which means the government has set up a ministry for that matter even before its accession to the EU. I think the accession process is constantly monitored and adjusted based on Turkey’s strategic depth in the surrounding region.
As for Turkey’s foreign policy, what sounds to be a more outstanding structure? Secularism or Islamism? If your answer is Islamism, how would you justify Turkey’s ties with Israel and NATO? And if secularism plays a more noticeable role, how would you account for Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?
In the government of Justice and Development, there are efforts aimed at striking a balance between religious concepts and state in the democratic framework which means that there is a perception that secularism has gone beyond its framework and now there are some who want to bring things back to normalcy.
In the new state of affairs, all matters mentioned will find their place. However, the question is whether or not public demands will be met in a democratic atmosphere. Striking a balance is another matter of essence.