Turkish-Iranian Rapprochement and President Erdogan's Visit to Iran

There has been a remarkable rapprochement between Ankara and Tehran in recent months. It is clear that certain developments in the Middle East have played a significant part in this rapprochement. The apparent rivalry between Turkey and Iran in various scenes that intensified after the Arab Spring and the subsequent regional crises adversely affected interests of the both countries. Especiallyongoing crises in Syria and Iraq for years have led an implicit understanding between the two governments to cooperate with each other for solutionof the regional issues, and not to rely much on extra-regional great powers. Additionally,the two countries have shared similar agendas to fight againstextremism, terrorism and sectarianism in the region. Recently, the growing partnership between the United States and PYD, affiliated tothe PKK, in Syria,hasdistressedboth Ankara and Tehran. The progress recorded in the Astana process started in January 2017 that aimed to contain armed clashes in Syrian, has served a confidence-building step in the relations between the two countries. Lastly, the 'independence referendum' held in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region is regardedas a common threatby the both countries. Meanwhile, the mutual exchanges between the Chiefs of the General Staffs in Turkey and Iran in a short span of time have added security and military dimensions to the growing cooperationbetween the two countries.

Institutionalization of bilateral relations,as well as regional security concerns and common security threats, has played a major role in the improvement of relations between Turkey and Iran. The establishment of the High-Level Cooperation Council (HLCC) between the two countries in 2014, and the invocation the Preferential Trade Agreement amidst occasionally rising tensions,areprofound steps taken in the name of institutionalizing bilateral relations. As a matter of fact,HLCC has been gathering in Ankara and Tehran by turns with the participation of the presidents and a large number of ministers for four years.

President Recep T. Erdoganpaid a visit to Tehran on October 4, in order to attend the fourth meeting of the HLCC.Erdogan, along with the Iranian President Rouhani, chaired the HLCC.President Erdoğan also met the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In addition to bilateral economic, political and security relations, however, regional affairs marked the agenda of the visit.


Bilateral Relations

During the visit, four memorandums of understanding were singed between the Ministry of Economy and Finance of Iran and the Turkish Ministry of Customs and Trade; the two central banks; the Turkish Prime Ministry Archives and the Iranian National Library and finally between TRT and IRIB. What’s more, the presidents of the two countries shared a joint statement that covers a wide range of issues from bilateral economic relations and to a number of regional issues. The parties have reiterated their goal to reach trade volumebetween the two countries above the level of $ 30 billion.

Four points regarding bilateral relations came to the forefront. The first is to trade with national currencies and the opening of branches of the Iranian and Turkish national banks in the two countries. This issue has been on the agenda for some years, but not been put into practice because of the American and UN sanctions against Iran. The second issue was to keep the three customs gates (Doğubeyazıt, Kapıköy and Esendere) on the land border of the two countries open for twenty-four hours in order to encourage mutual trade and travel. The third issue was energy cooperation. It was agreed that more Turkish investors would be involved in the efforts to develop the Iranian natural gas industry, while Turkey would increase the amount of gas it bought from Iran. However, detailed information was not provided in this topic. In addition to the mutual interests of the two countries in the energy sector, this issue will continue to be on the agenda of Turkey-Iran relations in the coming days as the current gas pipeline agreement, which was signed in 1996, is about to expire.


Regional Cooperation

As the visit was realized just after the Turkish Chief of the General StaffHulusiAkar had visited Tehran on October 2, the attention was drawn upon military-security cooperation. Besides, prospective cooperation between Turkey and Iran against the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (KRG), which heldthe referendum despite all warnings, was brought to the agenda. The foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Iraq had previously gathered in New York on 20 September and issued a joint declaration signifying their commitment to preserving Iraq's territorial integrity, and their opposition to the referendum. During Erdogan's visit, strong messages were given in the joint statement of the presidents, the joint press conference and the Erdogan-Khamenei meeting, for the development of security cooperation between the two countries and the protection of the territorial integrity of Iraq.

It was emphasized in the joint declaration that strengthening current cooperation mechanisms between the two countries againstthe PKK and PJAK elements in the borders of the two countries and taking joint steps tofight organized crime and terrorism are in the interests of both countries. Paying homage the Iraqi constitution, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Iraq, the parties rejected the 'illegal and illegitimate referendum' held in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and asked Iraqi Kurdish officials to step back. In this context, the Iraqi government’smeasures to protect its territorial integrity and political unityare backed up. During his meeting with Erdogan, Ayatollah Khamenei stated that the referendum is a betrayal anda threat to the future of the region. He also stated that Iran and Turkey should take every possible step to fight the referendum.

One of the most significantoutcomes of the visit was the establishment of a consultation mechanism between Turkey, Iran and Iraq to coordinate their sanctions against the KRG. At a press conference with Erdogan, Rouhani stated that the three countries would not allow the political borders of the region to change and would take necessary and serious measures against such a development. President Erdogan said that the three countries would take more serious decisions together, and if the KRG do not step back, it would be isolated. Erdoganalso said that they would decide together with Iraq and Iranwhether to stop the oil exports from the Kurdistan region.

As a result, the two countries have expressed at the highest level that they will act together against the KRG’s independence initiative. It was also revealed that Turkey and Iran would coordinate their measures and sanctions against the KRG with the Iraqi central government. Hence, Ankara and Tehran seem to have decided to follow Baghdad before taking anyunilateral step against the KRG. Both countries, however, are likely to encourage the Iraqi central government to take rigorous measures against the KRG. In any case, the scope of cooperation and the measures to be taken against the KRGamongthe three countries will be determined by the course of Arbil-Baghdad relations.