A series of unusually sharp statements over the past several days from both Turkey and Iran have brought relations between the two neighbors -- which have kept improving until recently even at the expense of angering Turkey's NATO ally the United States -- to what one may call a historic low.
Turkey hit back with a harsh statement at recent remarks from Iranian officials, including the country's chief of General Staff who has said that “it will be its turn” if Turkey continues to “help advance the warmongering policies of the United States in Syria.” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called comments by Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi "regrettable" and denied his country has meddled in Syrian affairs.
But actions speak louder than words and if the exchange of unprecedented accusations is not sufficient to illustrate how deep the tensions are, a recent decision by Iran to suspend a visa-free travel regime with Turkey should do it. For the first time since the visa-free regime first went into force in 1964, Iran suspended it last week, citing security concerns in the run-up to a summit of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran as an excuse.
“Visa regime is a step which reflects the tensions between Iran and Turkey. Obviously, Iran's attitude can be considered as a first step for the following tensions with Turkey,” Bayram Sinkaya, an expert on Iranian politics and a lecturer in the department of international relations at Yıldırım Beyazıt University in Ankara, said in remarks to Today's Zaman.
Iran has explained this decision as part of the security precautions it is taking in connection with the summit in Tehran, which currently holds the three-year rotating NAM presidency.
“Iran is a country which has experienced war, revolution and many revolts, but it never restricted visas with Turkey until today. It is the first time that Iran is implying visa regime to Turkey with a very lame excuse: security concerns,” said Sinkaya.
Turkey and Iran have improved their ties in recent years, but conflicting policies regarding Syria have strained Turkish-Iranian relations over the past several months. Turkey is one of the staunchest supporters of the opposition forces that are trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad, while Iran has stood by its ally Syria despite growing international pressure on Assad.
“Additionally, it is not the first time Iran is holding an international summit. This step is the reflection of Iran's discomfort of Turkey's Middle East policy, particularly Syria policy,” said Sinkaya.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday condemned comments by an Iranian official who blamed Ankara for the bloodshed in Syria and warned Turkey would be next, calling the comments unacceptable and inappropriate and urging Iran to honor its ties as neighbors.
The strongly worded statement came in response to recent threats and statements by Iranian officials regarding Turkey's policies on Syria.
“We strongly condemn statements full of groundless accusations and exceptionally inappropriate threats against our country by some Iranian officials,” the statement said. "It is unacceptable and irresponsible that Iranian officials in various posts continue to target our country through their statements, although Turkey's principled foreign policy is known to everyone."
“The decision to imply visa regime is the reflection of the Syrian issue to the Turkish-Iranian relations. Iran is using the visa card which will bring Turkey-Iran relations to a very serious point in the following days. Actually Iran is pursuing a wrong and dangerous policy,” said Süleyman Elek, an expert on Iranian politics at Istanbul Medeniyet University in Istanbul.
Tensions escalate between Ankara and Tehran over the Syrian crisis, which took a new turn when Syrian opposition forces abducted 48 Iranians in Damascus last Saturday.
This week, Iranian officials declared that the US, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were accountable for the lives of Iranian nationals, blaming those countries for the abduction of the Iranians.
The statements came amid talks between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, in Ankara.
Turkey warned Iran "in a frank and friendly manner" against blaming Ankara for violence in Syria, Davutoğlu said on Wednesday, a day after holding talks with his Iranian counterpart.
Syrian rebels said they kidnapped Iranians on suspicion of being military personnel. Tehran has said they were pilgrims visiting a Shiite shrine in Damascus. However, on Wednesday, Salehi said some of the Iranians kidnapped by Syrian rebels were retired soldiers or Revolutionary Guards.
"Turkey has its links with the opposition in Syria. So we think Turkey can play a major role in freeing our pilgrims," Salehi told reporters as he arrived in Ankara, adding: "Only Turkey and Iran working together can resolve their region's conflicts, particularly the fighting in Syria.”
Turkey said it views the kidnapping of Iranians as a humanitarian issue and that Turkey will do all it can to help secure the release of the abducted Iranians after Salehi called Davutoğlu and sought assistance in this regard.
“Another factor that reinforces Iran's discomfort is the Iranian Studies Conference held in İstanbul last week. The participants expected to come from Iran didn't attend the conference due to the Iranian government's attitude. The Iranian government perceived the conference as an initiative against itself. It is said that one of the foundation of the organizing committees of the conference was having cooperation with Israelis. So Iran put forward this reason for not attending,” said Sinkaya.
The International Society for Iranian Studies (ISIS) held its ninth biannual Iranian Studies Conference in İstanbul on Aug. 1-5.
“Additionally, there was a perception by Iran that Turkey was gathering Iranian opponents in Turkey. Turkey also gathered Syrian opposition. Thus, it is really interesting that the decision of the restriction of visas came immediately following this conference,” said Sinkaya.