Main Image Credit Non-nuclear glow: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, pictured in 2018. Image: Khamenei.ir / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
Ankara is hoping for a diplomatic settlement that will reduce tensions and remove the threat of further nuclear armament in the region.
Turkey is often caught between a rock and a hard place as major developments unfold on its borders. It is trying to balance its relations with Russia, while also being critical of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and providing Bayraktar drones to Ukrainian forces, which are proving to be highly effective. With the latest pause in the talks in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear programme, Turkey once again finds itself in a difficult spot. Requests from Moscow for guarantees to be included in the deal to protect its own trade with Iran amid sanctions against Russia seem set to derail the talks. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quick to ask Russia ‘not to take a negative stand’ in the talks, noting that ‘any negative stance by Moscow would impact everyone, including Russia’. Indeed, any deal with Iran, or its collapse, will have direct implications for Turkey.
Turkish-Iranian relations have never been straightforward since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and a similar pattern can be observed upon delving deeper into history: distance, followed by recognition of mutual interests and the need for cooperation, in tandem with competition over neighbouring regions and theatres, and then an eventual falling out due to conflicting interests and direct challenges. This is why a vocabulary of ‘friends vs enemies’ and ‘allies vs competitors’ never fully works in trying to capture the relationship between the two countries, no matter how seductive ‘East vs West’ language is in trying to assess on what imagined point Turkey is towards an alliance with Iran or the West. Such linearity only leaves us high and dry in pursuit of neat narratives.
While Ankara has maintained Iran’s right to pursue peaceful research on and use of nuclear energy, it has also consistently promoted nuclear non-proliferation
Turkey and Iran share a border over 500 km long, which brings with it complex challenges, including irregular migration; narcotics, arms and contraband trade; and the movement of militant groups. Turkey remains one of only a handful of countries in the world that do not require an advance visa for Iranians to visit the country as a tourist. Both countries have a stake in developments in neighbouring states, especially Iraq and Syria. Thus, it is no surprise that they often seek to find ways to deepen trade, engage on security issues, and balance interests, with positive pictures and welcomes in each other’s capitals. Yet, both countries are often in competition with each other in Central Asia as well as the Middle East, and view each other’s activities and involvement with deep suspicion. In 2011, Iranian officials did not react kindly to Turkey’s decision to host a powerful advance NATO radar system in Malatya. Similarly, Turkish officials have always been wary of murky dealings between Iran and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, Iranian intelligence activities in Turkey, and the direct threat that Iranian-backed militants pose to Turkish soldiers and assets in Iraq and Syria. Add into the mix the continual pressure Turkey faces, particularly from the US, on its desire to expand trade with Iran amid a complex sanctions regime, and things are never straightforward.
Yet, Ankara has maintained a consistent line on the question of nuclear enrichment and efforts to find a solution to it. While Ankara has maintained Iran’s right to pursue peaceful research on and use of nuclear energy, it has also consistently promoted nuclear non-proliferation – having signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1969 – and has regularly urged Tehran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
This approach is underwritten by three factors: firstly, Ankara has been consistent in its desire not to see further nuclear armament in its neighbourhood. Even though Turkey hosts US nuclear warheads, it has never sought to achieve its own capabilities. With the exception of one sensationalist report, there has not been any sign of the Turkish government exploring such an idea, amid a historic push for investment in the Turkish defence industry and attempts to achieve strategic independence and deterrence in a tricky geographical situation. Secondly, a nuclear-armed Iran not only poses strategic challenges to Turkey in terms of the power balance between the two countries, but also puts Turkey in a vulnerable position if Iran’s nuclear ambitions were to usher in a conflict between Iran and other powerful states. Such a war on Turkey’s borders would have substantial implications, from refugee intakes to nuclear disasters in close proximity. Thirdly, Ankara stands to lose out from further sanctions on Iran and to gain from any lifting of sanctions. Turkey has no option but to trade with Iran; it shares a border with the country, purchases gas from it, and eyes a large market with so many opportunities to exploit, if the conditions were to allow it. In fact, the trade volume between Iran and Turkey has been falling since 2017, from $10.76 billion down to $3.44 billion in 2020.
Ankara does not want a nuclear-armed country on its borders, especially not one that it has a complex relationship with
These factors overlap with another strong desire in Turkish foreign policy: to be a dealmaker, negotiator and mediator while balancing its own interests with conflicting parties, and maintaining a critical view of Western inconsistencies and pressures on other countries. We saw this in how Ankara offered to mediate between Qatar and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council in their dispute, while also carefully aligning with Qatar. Most recently, we have seen this in how Turkey has joined fellow NATO members in clear condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, yet still wishes to contain risks and offer itself as a mediator. In the case of Iran and the question of nuclear enrichment, we have seen this in Turkey’s repeated offers to play a mediator or guarantor role, including an alternative process led by Turkey and Brazil to that led by the P5+1 countries, which resulted in the 2010 Tehran Declaration between Turkey, Brazil and Iran. This initiative was based on both a genuine desire to find a solution to avoid further sanctions and tensions, and underlying discontent regarding Western attitudes, as well as a proactive foreign policy at the time that sought to position Turkey as a key regional actor.
Fast-forward 12 years, and Ankara still views the current push to resurrect the deal with Iran through the same lens. It does not want a nuclear-armed country on its borders, especially not one that it has a complex relationship with. It does not want further sanctions and tensions, or the risk of further conflicts on its borders. It prefers a diplomatic and amicable solution – ideally one that includes a role for Turkey.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Ziya Meral
Senior Associate Fellow