Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani looked on Tuesday like two hedgehogs trying to mate. Their statements during a press conference, at which no questions were allowed, sounded as if every comma in them had been very carefully programmed.
“We need to undertake this mediation to stop the bloodshed in Iraq and Syria,” declared Erdogan, who refrained from mentioning Turkey’s involvement with the anti-Iran coalition that’s operating against the Houthis in Yemen. “I don’t care if they are Sunnis or Shi’ites being killed, they are all Muslims,” said the Turkish president, who, unlike Iran, is demanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad be removed from power as a condition for his joining the western coalition against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
These are not the only disputes between Turkey and Iran. Two weeks ago, Erdogan declared that Iran’s goal is to seize control of the region and that it must be stopped. As a result, 65 members of the Iranian parliament demanded that their president cancel Erdogan’s visit to Tehran. Moreover, Turkey positioned itself Saudi Arabia in the war against the Houthis in Yemen. The Saudis see Turkey as an ally in the Sunni axis it seeks to establish against Iran. The high price that Turkey is paying Iran for natural gas is also angering Erdogan, who promised to buy more gas if Iran would agree to lower it.
But along with these differences, Iran and Turkey have many common interests. Trade between the two countries is worth some $14 billion and, at least according to their statements, they intend to triple its scope. The two countries see eye to eye on the risk posed by the establishment of an independent Kurdish state, and Turkey is also the major supplier of consumer goods to Iraq, which is under Iran’s patronage.
Despite the chronic mutual suspicion, the economic and diplomatic ties with Iran are especially important to Turkey, which realizes the enormous potential opportunities if a nuclear agreement is signed with the world powers that lifts the sanctions imposed on Iran. The legitimacy that Iran would receive would allow Turkey to purchase large quantities of crude oil at a competitive price, integrate into the Iranian auto industry, and win huge construction tenders that are expected to be issued.
At the same time, Turkey is not relinquishing the new ties that have developed with Saudi Arabia. These are liable to bring reconciliation with Egypt, from which Turkey has been cut off since Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi seized power in July 2013. Just before he left for Iran, Erdogan received the Saudi crown prince and interior minister, Mohammend bin Nayef, who asked for an assurance that Turkey would not deviate from the agreements reached between the two countries when Erdogan visited Riyadh last month, particularly with regard to cooperating in the war in Yemen.
Once again, Turkey is trying to dance at all the weddings and reposition itself in the Middle East. So far, its foreign policy has suffered blow after blow: the breaks with Israel and Syria; major losses in Libya; the rift with Egypt; the cold winds from Saudi Arabia; and confrontation with the United States over Turkey’s refusal to join the coalition against ISIS. Turkish commentators hastened to compare Iran, which is liable to play a significant, if not primary role in the regional diplomatic games, to Turkey, which has lost its regional anchors; between Iran, whose president uses Twitter and Facebook, and Turkey, where the government has ordered the online social networks blocked. These are still far-fetched comparisons; Iran still has a long way to go just to get to the limited human rights that exist in Turkey. But in a region where images play a crucial role in the branding of nations, Iran is earning lots of credit points while Turkey is being pushed to the sidelines.