Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 31 Issue 1
Author: Silvia Boltuc
The upcoming Turkish elections might affect Ankara-Tehran relations if the opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu will defeat the president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, thus, change domestic and foreign policies.
On May 14th, 2023, Turkey will hold the presidential and parliamentary elections, a critical event that might mark a turning point reshaping Ankara’s strategy in the domestic and global arena after twenty years of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership.
Turkish President and AKP leader gained strong support in the 2000s after founding a party rooted in political Islam and opening the political sphere to conservatives who felt marginalised in the modern state of Turkey established by Kemal Ataturk and characterised by secularism and a more Western-like approach. During these years, the country experienced an economic boom that allowed many people to enter the middle class.
People have hugely criticised Erdogan, particularly recently, for its response to the massive earthquake that hit the country. It is not clear what impact this event will have on voters. On one side, the response was slow, and there was a controversial discussion on building regulations. On the other side, the earthquake affected areas which are considered AKP strongholds: therefore, after having admitted the delays and offered all kind of services to the earthquake victims, Erdogan gained back consensus in these cities.
Finally, although the Turkish President has won over the electorate by building massive modern infrastructure, he has also conducted financial manoeuvres that have exposed Turkey to rising inflation.
Turkey’s elections are of significant importance, being Ankara one of the leading players in the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Africa and a NATO member with controversial aspirations. Depending on the results of the elections, major powers such as the U.S., Russia and Iran might decide to reshape their strategies in these areas.
Iran-Turkey relations and cooperation spheres
Turkish-Iranian relations have always been discontinuous, alternating diplomatic cooperation with opposite geopolitical needs and foreign strategies. This competition can be seen in the Caucasus, where Turkey has openly supported Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh conflict against Armenia while Iran had different goals, in the Middle East, where Syria and Iraq have become a battleground of conflicting interests, and finally, on the energy front as both countries are attempting to establish themselves as the region’s leading transit hub for energy supplies.
Iranian regionalism driven by the failure of the Vienna talks on a new nuclear agreement and Ankara’s renewed interest in the Eurasian area after the repeated failures to access the European Union have prompted the two Middle Eastern powers to pursue a more incisive regional role.
Interests in Syria, Iraq and Central Asia and Turkey’s accession to NATO have been dividing issues between Ankara and Tehran, which instead have found a convergence of policies regarding opposition to an independent Kurdistan and support for creating an independent Palestinian state.
The historical legacy of Ottoman-Safavid antagonism or the contrast between the two opposing Islamic confessions, the Shiite and the Sunni, might be further reasons for mutual mistrust. Despite these considerations, it is reasonable to think, after carefully analysing the two countries’ strategies, that the competition to date sinks more simply into Real Politik and, therefore, into the current geopolitical needs of Turkey and Iran.
Looking at history, the Islamic Republic government was ideologically incompatible with the secular, Kemalist Turkish state. With the rise of Erbakan and the Welfare Party he founded in 1983, something changed. Its proximity to Iran is still much debated today. After Necmettin Erbakan was appointed Prime Minister, in fact, he chose Iran as the first destination for a visit abroad. Nevertheless, it should be emphasised that while the closeness between the two states assumed an ideological connotation at that time, cooperation today concerns purely pragmatic spheres. Despite geopolitical tensions and contrasting interests, Iran and Turkey have signed several cooperation agreements over the years. Some examples are:
- Trade agreement to increase the exchange volume to 30 billion dollars and to establish joint industrial zones to boost trade and investment.
- Energy cooperation agreement to increase natural gas exports from Iran to Turkey and develop joint energy projects.
- Cultural cooperation agreement to strengthen cultural ties between the two states.
- Transportation Agreement focusing on developing railway connections and increasing the flights between the two countries.
- Defense Cooperation Agreement to enhance military ties. The agreement focused on intelligence sharing and the joint fight against terrorism.
Iran and Turkey have competing strategies in common areas of interest. Although Iraq and Syria are both at the top of the two states’ agenda, the Caucasus has recently become the primary battleground.
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Ankara seeks to achieve the Turkish countries’ unity, pushing Pan-Turkism ideology through the Caucasus to Central Asia. Azerbaijan has been one of the main tools of Turkish influence expansionism.
Notably, the founding agreement of the Turkish Council was signed in the Nakhchivan exclave. Ankara’s increasing influence would come at the expense of Tehran’s regional goals: the recent Azeri attempt to connect Nakhichevan through the Armenian Syunik region will serve Ankara’s goal of connecting Turkey to Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, and the central Asian republics. Although Ankara proved to have an independent and not necessarily aligned regional policy, such an outcome might also be in the interest of NATO countries, which could realise a corridor connecting central Asia to Europe.
For Iran, this would mean being cut out from energy corridors and losing its land connection to Russia and Armenia, a door through which Tehran can access the Eurasian Economic Union markets. In this light, Iran tried to make some concessions to Azerbaijan, for example, siding with Baku about the return of Artsakh territories under Azerbaijan in 2020, and tried to enter the energy and transit corridors proposing Iran as a transit country: it was the case when Tehran offered to connect Azerbaijan’s East Zangezur economic region and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic through the territory of Iran or the gas swap agreement between Tehran, Baku and Ashgabat.
Despite this, Iran has historically solid relations with Armenia. The Turkish attempt to create this corridor connecting the Turkish countries to Europe through the Syunik region is unacceptable for the Islamic Republic of Iran, mainly because it would cut Iran out from vital transit and energy routes.
Furthermore, recent tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran might lead to an escalation involving Turkey. Azeri President Ilham Aliyev announced, as part of the Teknofest technology festival organised in Istanbul on April 29th, 2023, that the Turkish military company Baykar will establish a Bayraktar centre in Azerbaijan.
In particular, Aliyev said that he agreed on this when the Director of the Baykar company, Selçuk Bayraktar, visited Baku in early April 2023. Aliyev noted that as part of that visit, Selçuk Bayraktar presented him with a model of the company’s new product, Kızıl Elma, its first jet-powered unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), more lethal than the famed TB2. Aliyev expressed his hope that shortly, Kızıl Elma will also be in the sky over Azerbaijan.
The new UCAV is a low-observable vehicle and could represent a threat to Iran. Azerbaijan’s expansionist attitude towards Armenia and northern Iran has been of major concern for Tehran, which recently called on Baku’s government to preserve the two states’ relations. Such tensions might expand involving Turkey and lead to dangerous destabilisation in the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea.
On May 14th, 2023, Turkey will face presidential and parliamentary elections. Given the possibility of voting for a candidate in the presidential elections and the opposition in the parliamentary ones, the outcome might further destabilise the country.
Looking at the leading presidential candidates, Erdogan and the leader of the CHP, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has the support of the so-called ‘table of six’, the Nation Alliance (CHP, DP, DEVA, GELECEK, SAADET and IYI), the results might lead to very different scenarios depending on the winner.
The table of six is particularly interesting as this coalition brings together Islamist, right-wing, leftist and nationalist parties. As in Iran, there has always been an internal struggle between reformists and conservatives, in Turkey, conservatives and secularists were the two competing movements. With these two candidates, the division is not so drastic anymore.
Turkey’s location between the Middle East and Europe puts the country’s elections under international spotlights. Contrary to Erdogan’s foreign policy, Kilicdaroglu might be a more compromising figure, reshaping Ankara’s strategies towards regional players, such as Iran.
Tehran, for example, multiple times tried to supply Europe with Iranian gas through Turkey and blamed Ankara for preventing such cooperation. With Brussels willing to restore the nuclear deal, Iran may join Iraq in the energy market that reaches the Western world through Turkey and ease tensions with Azerbaijan.
In the last years, Turkey also urged the U.S. to lift sanctions on Iran, underlining that Ankara is willing to trade with Tehran. The outcome of the upcoming elections might open a new era in Iran-Turkey relations, improving their trade volume thanks also to Tehran’s efforts in the economic field. Otherwise, the two countries will continue competing to become the leading regional transit and energy hub.