I have a more comprehensive piece coming out next week on Turkish policy-making vis-a-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia. Below are my brief thoughts on the topic, including the speculation that Ankara is now part of a “Sunni-Axis” against Iran. I think that analysis is far too simplistic and fails to capture key schisms in the Turkish-Saudi relationship, particularly over Iran.
Turkey has a number of conflicting interests in the Middle East. There is no doubt Ankara has a strong affinity towards religiously conservative political movements. These movements are all Sunni. However, Ankara has a strong commercial interest in retaining ties with Iran – and therefore has assiduously worked to compartmentalize its relationship with the Islamic Republic. So, on the one hand, Turkey is engaged in a proxy war against Iran in Syria. Yet, on the other, it is reliant upon Iran for 20% of its yearly natural gas consumptions. If one wanted to be flippant, one could say Turkey’s “oil-for-gold” sanctions circumvention helped to sustain the very Assad/Iranian led war that it is trying to win. Ankara has historically kept Iran inside the tent so to speak during times of tension. The two sides support different actors in Kurdistan, for example, but work together to prevent the region’s independence. In this regard, the relationship is symbiotic. Iran needs Turkey to keep pressure on Barzani, whereas Iran retains links to Talabani. Davutoglu, in Strategic Depth, acknowledges an Iranian sphere of influence in Iraq. It is in the Shia south and east of the country, whereas Turkey’s natural zone is Kurdistan and Ninewa, extending through Aleppo in Syria. All of this is to say that Davutoglu never rejected an Iranian role in Iraq, albeit while acknowledging that they compete for influence in certain spots.
One concern for Ankara is that Iran’s influence has grown so much, whereas Turkey’s remains limited through out Iraq. The balance is off, so to speak, and Turkey would like to see Iran’s role rolled-back, but recognizes it can’t be defeated. In many ways this is structural: Iran has direct control over its proxies, whereas Turkey’s control is tangential and limited to unpopular politicians, like Osama al Nujaifi – one of three ceremonial VP’s in Iraq’s central government. However, one has to remember, that things were a lot worse back in the late 1990s/early 2000s. It was so bad that Turkish warplanes bombed the Iranian side of the border at one point whilst attacking the PKK in the Turkish-Iraqi-Iranian border regions. Iran was also accused of working through Kurdish hizbullah to assassinate key Turkish secularists.
The Yemen intervention stems from a rapprochement over the Muslim Brotherhood. King Salman recognized that the fitna was undermine Saudi foreign policy, and critically that he needed al Islah as a coalition of counter balancing forces towards the Houthis, which have the support of Ali Saleh. This gave the two sides the breathing room needed to cooperate – at least rhetorically – on what is a Saudi led fight in Yemen. It has to be noted that Sudan has committed more to the fight than Ankara in terms of military assets. The key area of convergence is actually in Syria, where Turkey has received Saudi support for its work with Ahrar al Sham and other Islamist rebels. That is a change in Saudi policy.
As for the nuclear deal, Turkey’s policy differs considerably from that of Saudi Arabia. Turkey has always supported a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. Turkey has also steadfastly defended Iran’s right to enrich, so long that country meets its nonproliferation/IAEA commitments. Ankara’s reasons for doing so are threefold: First, Ankara has a tremendous economic interest in the lifting of sanctions. In fact, the major issue for these two countries before sanctions were significantly tightened was Iran’s closed economy and the barriers to entry for Turkish private industry to the 80 million person Iranian market. Second, Ankara ultimately views the Iranian nuclear program as something that can be deterred through IAEA inspections and the NATO security guarantee. Third, Turkey sees any limitations on the notional right to enrich as an encroachment on the basic bargain in the NPT – and thus jealously guards its understanding of Article IV. Iran, in this case, is simply a proxy for a broader argument about what the peaceful use clause means.
Turkey has always pursued a policy of compartmentalization with Iran, whereby it can fight a proxy war, whilst at the same looking to expand trade to $30 billion per year. I expect this continue. The rhetoric, therefore, should be viewed within the natural limits of Turkish-Iranian relations. Ankara can’t break with Iran and therefore can’t adopt Saudi Arabia’s policies carte blanche. Turkey will need to balance its approach to both countries, as it seeks to navigate through the chaos that is the Middle East.