The oft-quoted Treaty of Kasr-ı Şirin of 1639 finally settled the centuries-old border disputes and, to this day, constitutes the only border in the Middle East that was not imposed by imperial powers. Apart from culturally impacting each other immensely, Turks and Iranians are the two regional heavyweights that are non-Arab.
Following the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to power in 2002, relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran have been framed within the contours of our neighborhood policy that foresaw normalization with our neighbors. However, Iran has always had a special place among our neighbors. The AK Party leadership treated Iran as a very special country. Throughout the last decade Turkey has always been on the giving end of bilateral relations.
This became particularly clear when Turkey refused to vote in favor of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1929, which took almost a year to be prepared. Turkey spent enormous political capital, together with Brazil, in finding a solution to the nuclear issue. Furthermore, the UNSC vote took place days after the Israeli raid of the Mavi Marmara and other ships in an aid flotilla in the eastern Mediterranean, souring Turkish-Israeli and Turkish-American relations.
I vividly remember heading a delegation that aimed to clarify Turkey’s sensitivities to Washington as head of the Turkey-US Inter-parliamentary Friendship Group. Turkey was heavily criticized by our colleagues in Washington for the Tehran Agreement, which precipitated our “no” vote in the Security Council. During those days, some of us believed we had extended unnecessarily diplomatic cover to Tehran. Our expectation was that Iran would open certain sectors of its economy to Turkey, that common gas exploration would take place in the South Pars field and that trade would increase up to $30 billion annually. Of course, none of those promises were acted upon. The Iranians played us merely for their own benefit.
Over time, Turkish unhappiness with the lack of Iranian sincerity has become more pronounced in Ankara. Whispers have turned into stronger articulations of disapproval over Iranian actions. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks two days ago about Tehran’s wobbling on the venue of the nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran reveal the increasing impatience with Iranian diplomacy. Tehran, of course, aims to embarrass Ankara over its policy on Syria, Turkey’s hosting of the NATO early warning radar system as well as the recent decision to reduce oil imports from Iran by 20 percent. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s comments were actually quite controlled and limited to warning Iran that it risks increasing isolation with its inconsistent policies. However, I suspect things could actually become more intense if Tehran has a hand in supporting the PKK and/or other foul play emerges on Iraq.
When everyone was trying to isolate Syria, we extended a helping hand with the hope that engagement with Turkey would exert a moderating influence on them. When everyone was trying to sanction Iran, we attempted to get them out of their isolation and resolve the nuclear issue in a face-saving manner. Neither Syria nor Iran responded to us when they should have. They now have revealed their true colors and made it clear that they merely used Turkish engagement for their own narrow interests. Damascus has already lost Turkey and Tehran is likely to do so if it continues with this constant wobbling and game playing that is so typical of Persian behavior.
The Turkish government rightly feels that Tehran has been ungrateful and has long forgotten the diplomatic capital Turkey used to help resolve the nuclear issue. Ultimately, the Arab awakening’s greatest contribution to our foreign policy has been the end of our romanticism toward the Middle East. That may not be so bad after all.