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February 12, 2014, Wednesday

Erdoğan’s visit to Iran

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to Iran two weeks ago may not be a major milestone in Turkish-Iranian relations, however, it is definitely confirmation that these relations are developing in the right direction.

Syria, energy and security were among the important topics that were discussed during this visit.

On energy, the sticking point was the price of natural gas sold by Iran to Turkey. Iran proposed to alleviate Turkey's dire need for natural gas by increasing the volume, but the Turkish side will accept that only if the price per cubic meter is brought down to the average international price level. The agreement that is in force at present contains the famous “take-or-pay” clause that limits Turkey's freedom of action. According to this clause, Turkey has to buy at least 87 percent of the volume stipulated in the agreement, which is 10 billion cubic meters per year. Otherwise it will have to pay even if the natural gas is not purchased. Turkey's proposal to bring this percentage down to 75 was not accepted by Iran.

Turkey believes that the present price of natural gas imported from Iran is too high and that it has to be revised downward. Iran did not promise anything concrete during Erdoğan's visit, but said that it will look into the matter. With the Turkish lira having depreciated more than 20 percent against the US dollar in recent weeks, the cost of Turkey's natural gas bill will now be that much more expensive. Previously, Turkey took its dispute with Iran to the International Council for Commercial Arbitration (ICCA) in Switzerland and the ICCA decided in 2009 that Iran had to pay Turkey compensation of $800 million. Turkey plans to go to arbitration once more because of the present dispute. This is a technical question and will be solved within its own technical parameters.

The second important subject for an exchange of views during Erdoğan's visit to Iran was the Syrian file. This question is political, and, unlike the gas issue, many parameters may be assessed differently by both sides. Two years ago, after Erdoğan's previous visit to Iran, media reported that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had told Erdoğan that Turkey's expectation of an early fall for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may not materialize and that Turkey should adjust its policy accordingly. Khamenei turned out to be right and Erdoğan has now agreed with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that the foreign ministers of the two countries should continue their consultations on this question. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is not expected to be persuaded easily by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu that Iran's policy on Syria was wrong, but this does not mean that the two countries cannot cooperate more closely to contribute to a non-military solution to the Syrian crisis.

Rouhani and Erdoğan also agreed on the establishment of a high level cooperation council between the two countries. Turkey has similar councils with several neighboring countries and it is used as a forum where many bilateral issues are discussed and resolved by ministers of both countries under the supervision of their respective prime ministers. The framework agreement for the establishment of the high level council seems to be finalized already and will be signed during Rouhani's visit to Turkey this month.

The third important matter was the security issue. The Syrian crisis made this country a nursery for extremist terrorist organizations. Both regional and international players will suffer if the steady growth of al-Qaeda-linked terrorist gangs in Syria cannot be stopped. The US started to leak news to the press about the support that Iran is extending to al-Qaeda. Iran categorically rejected any link with this organization and said that it would be shooting itself in the foot if it did so. In the event that post-crisis Syria becomes an al-Qaeda-dominated country, it will be a nightmare not only for the international community in general and for Turkey in particular, but also for Iran. More truth may surface if Turkey and Iran engage in genuine cooperation in this field. Closer cooperation at this juncture between Turkey and Iran in this sensitive field has therefore become all the more important.

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