BACKGROUND: Guided by the philosophy of foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkey has sought to improve its political relations with its key neighbors by strengthening mutual economic links and by moving its position in key issues, such as Israel and Iran’s nuclear program, closer to the regional mainstream. The goal was to strengthen Turkey’s economy, achieve greater regional stability, and thereby raise Ankara’s global influence. The Turkish leadership recognized that regional conflict and competition would persist, but hoped the parties would keep these negative elements constrained to enjoy the positive benefits of improved economic relations and a more secure region, which would provide Turkey with the “strategic depth” Ankara needed to become a great power.
Building on the growth in energy and economic ties between Turkey and Russia that had occurred during the 1990s, the AKP government that took office in 2002 has sought to use this foundation to improve political and security relations with Russia, which had remained strained due to differences over various regional security issues. Moscow has reciprocated, though with the aspiration of weakening Turkey’s Western orientation. The past decade has seen a tremendous growth in trade, tourism, and mutual investment. Russia has become Turkey’s largest national trading partner, surpassing Germany, its third-biggest export market, and an important reciprocal investment partner. Important business groups in Turkey have developed a strong stake in Turkey-Russia economic ties, leading them to lobby Ankara to avoid antagonizing Moscow on other issues. The two countries declared a “strategic partnership” in 2010 and established an annual leadership summits, a High-Level Cooperation Council, and a Joint Strategic Planning Group.
But strains are inevitable due to the imbalanced Turkey-Russia trade, with Turkey’s import of Russian oil and gas accounting for four-fifths of their now $33 billion annual trade. Ankara’s efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian energy have thus far proved largely unsuccessful. Although Russia’s share of Turkey’s imported oil has fallen from 40 percent in 2009 to 12 percent in 2011, the proportion of natural gas Turkey acquires from Russia has actually been increasing, reaching 58 percent in 2012. Russia also looks to become a major player in Turkey’s emerging civil nuclear energy sector. Moscow’s maneuvers have limited Turkey’s goal of becoming a major east-west energy corridor linking Caspian Basin oil and gas to European markets. Although Turkey drifted away from its Western anchor in the past decade, and has lobbied to keep NATO warships out of the Black Sea to avoid antagonizing Moscow, cooperation with Russia on political issues is intermittent and tactical rather than strategic due to their diverging political priorities and national interests.
Turkey’s relations with Iran have followed a similar but shallower pattern. Energy and economic ties have grown significantly in the past decade, with Iran providing more than half of Turkey’s oil in 2011 due to Iranian price cutting. Ankara still resists applying the supplementary sanctions adopted by many Western countries on Iran and has managed to circumvent some financial sanctions by giving Iran gold rather than hard currency. But Iran has proven a considerably less reliable economic partner for Turkey than Russia. Many deals announced with great fanfare never pan out—a pattern one sees in Iran’s relations with many other countries. Iranian tourists and businesses have increased their presence in Turkey, but Turkish banks are withdrawing from their intermediary role in Iran under sustained U.S. pressure. Iran lacks the business constituencies Russia enjoys in Turkey who will lobby on its behalf. Turkish entrepreneurs have found Iran just as frustrating an investment environment as have their Russian counterparts. Turkey is making progress in having Azerbaijan, Iraq, and eventually Turkmenistan replace Iran as major suppliers of gas and oil. Iran’s role in the Turkish economy looks set to decline further as Turks deepen their ties with the more dynamic economies in Asia and elsewhere.
Turkey’s political relations with Iran never improved as much as they did with Russia. Possible partnerships regarding Iraq or Afghanistan have failed to materialize. Instead of cooperating to limit regional instability, Ankara and Tehran have fanned it by backing competing proxy forces in both countries. In recent years, Turkey and Iran have emerged as the leading competing sectarian models for Middle Eastern nations seeking to overthrow their traditional authoritarian leaders. Thus far, Turkey’s more moderate Sunni-based model has proved considerably more popular than Iran’s radical Shiite clerical model. Indeed, Turkey is emerging as the leading member of the Sunni forces in the Middle East confronting Tehran’s allies in Damascus and Baghdad. Partly due to their diverging policies in Syria and Iraq, the modest cooperation they developed a few years ago against Kurdish separatists in the region has by now ended, with rumors that each government is again backing favored Kurdish militants against the other. Iran no longer considers Turkey fully neutral regarding its nuclear issue, and now favors Kazakhstan and other countries as more suitable hosts of its P5+1 talks.
IMPLICATIONS: Interestingly, Turkey is not as important a partner for Russia as it is for Iran, which has made many regional enemies and whose businesses lack alternative trading partners and investment markets. Tehran also wants to prevent Turkey from supporting any military action against Iran. Conversely, Ankara considers Moscow a much more important partner than Iran on a range of dimensions. In 2008, Ankara refused to challenge Russia’s dismemberment of Georgia. Meanwhile, Iranians have had to restrain their fury at Turkey’s efforts to overthrow the Syrian regime or host the NATO radar whose only plausible purpose is to help counter Iran’s growing ballistic missile capabilities.
In partnership with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) and the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IVRAN), the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is conducting a project to analyze the multidimensional relationship among Turkey, Russia, and Iran. According to the CSIS authors, the Turkey-Iran-Russia triangle unsurprisingly has the greatest influence in the neighboring regions of the Eastern Mediterranean, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. In the first region, while Israel and Cyprus remain in play, the Syria War is clearly the dominant issue. The differences between Turkey and its partners are strong and look to remain so until President Bashar al-Assad is forced to leave office. The main uncertainty is how long Russia and Iran will overlook Turkey’s lead role in seeking to overthrow their Syrian ally. A direct Turkish military intervention in Syria would place heavy and unpredictable strains on the relationships. But if al-Assad leaves office without Turkish intervention, than Ankara’s popularity in the Arab world looks to rise even higher, to Moscow’s and Iran’s detriment.
The three countries also have diverging interests in Central Asia. Both Turkey and Iran would like to increase their influence. But Russia’s influence in Central Asia—based on history, proximity and economic, political, and security ties – remains overwhelming, so Ankara has joined Tehran in essentially deferring to Moscow’s primacy. If anything, NATO’s ongoing withdrawal from Afghanistan will likely reinforce this trend. But over the long term, neither Turkey nor Iran is prepared to accept Russia’s uncontested dominance of this region.
The Caucasus offers an even more likely arena for greater trilateral geopolitical competition. Russia wants to remain the dominant player in this vital neighboring region and has an intolerant attitude toward economic or energy competitors, Muslim militants of any stripe, or other rivals. Turks and Iranians sympathize with the repressed local Muslims in the North Caucasus but dare not challenge Russia’s territorial integrity. But their approaches diverge in the South Caucasus. Tehran continues to defer to Moscow’s primacy there, and indeed welcomes Russia’s support for Armenia, which constrains both Azerbaijan and Turkey. In contrast, Turkey has sought to promote the autonomy of Azerbaijan and Georgia as buffer states and as partners with Turkey in several critical east-west energy arteries. Russia effectively maneuvered to kill the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform that Ankara launched after the 2008 Georgia War. According to a CSIS study, some Russian analysts and officials expect Turkey, if it continues to move away from its secular principles and embrace a more Muslim identity, to become a growing competitor for influence with Moscow even in the North Caucasus, with some Turks exploiting ethnic and religious ties with various Caucasian groups to promote a more radical and militant form of Islam than Moscow considers acceptable.
CONCLUSIONS: In recent years Turkey has had more diverging than converging interests with Russia and Iran. Moscow and Tehran have discouraged the growth of east-west energy and transportation routes that pass through the Caspian and Turkey. Ankara has sided against Tehran’s allies in Baghdad and Damascus, while Moscow has generally backed them. Turkey has also backed away from its opposition to Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, sanctions against Iran, and NATO’s missile defense initiatives.
Talk of a new “axis of the alienated” (from the U.S.-dominated international system) has ended. Turkey has reestablished strong relations with NATO and the United States, becoming the Obama administration’s preferred ally in the region. In its first few years, the Obama administration avoided confronting the AKP regarding its provocations toward Israel or its outreach toward Iran and Russia. Since 2010, Ankara and Washington have joined forces to counter Iranian influence in Syria, leading Russians and Iranians to once more see Turkey as a U.S. regional proxy.
Turkey’s recent interest in moving closer toward the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) hardly seems to have the potential to change these dynamics given the weak nature of the SCO as an institution, the diverging foreign policy orientations of many of its members, and the likelihood that Washington and Ankara would use the opportunity to advance their joint agenda in Eurasia. But China’s rising global influence could very well impart sufficient energy to disrupt both the Turkey-Iran-Russia triangle and the close Ankara-Washington partnership, realign these states into yet some unpredictable pattern.
Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".