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Turkey and Iran

Thomas Siebert / groApril 9, 2015

Turkish President Erdogan’s visit to Tehran is part of a meandering Turkish policy between Arabs and Iranians. Turkey has not presented a compelling vision of regional policy, writes DW’s Thomas Seibert.

Iran - Türkischer Präsident Recep Tayyip Erdogan zu Besuch in Teheran
Image: farsi.khamenei.ir

First, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ranted about the eastern neighbor Iran's lust for power in the Middle East - and then, traveled to Tehran and held amicable talks with President Hassan Rohani. The scenes are typical of Erdogan: verbal thunder followed by pragmatic action.

As a long-serving leader, today's Turkish president significantly contributed to Turkey's isolation in the region in recent years. This isolation was an unintended consequence of an ambitious project. Erdogan's Islamic-conservative government conceived the Arab Spring as an opportunity to expand Turkey's influence in the entire region and to enter a reliable alliance with the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.

Erdogan's failed plan

The plan clearly went wrong. In Egypt, Erdogan partner's Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by the military; relations between two of the most important countries in the region are still marred.

Since the Muslim Brotherhood, as an idea, is a potential threat to ruling classes in other Arab nations, tension has built up between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other players.

DW Korrespondent Thomas Seibert
DW's Thomas SeibertImage: Thomas Seibert

At the same time, Turkish relations with Israel, Iraq and Syria have deteriorated dramatically.

In Ankara, critics instead mocked the desired goal of "zero problems" with its neighbors, which was once a slogan of former foreign minister and current prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Turkey now stands with "zero friends". An Erdogan consultant defiantly spoke of "honorable isolation."

Looking for a way out

With regard to Iran, Turkey has been spared a major crisis. But the traditional rivalry between the Sunni NATO country Turkey and the United States' Shiite foe, Iran, has repeatedly met with controversy.

Recently, the Yemen conflict opened up the opportunity for Erdogan to regain lost confidence in the Sunni camp. Ankara signaled its support for Saudi military action in Yemen, while Erdogan ranted about Iran's supposed aspirations of supremacy in the region. The Gulf States were satisfied, but in Tehran, Erdogan's criticism caused such an outrage in Tehran, that even a cancellation of Erdogan's trip to Tehran was being discussed.

Good weather in Tehran

Erdogan stuck to his plans and he even tried to put himself in the position of mediator in the conflict in Yemen this week. He claimed that that it was not about Shiites and Sunnis, but rather, all Muslims. Also, Turkey would like to see itself as Tehran's partner, should sanctions be lifted after the recent nuclear deal and give rise to Turkish exports to Iran. This, in turn, could garner new criticism from Sunni Arabs, who fear growing Iranian power.

Sooner or later, Turkey's zigzag path between Arabs and Iranians will lead to trouble. The good weather in Tehran will not last forever. Turkey has not presented a compelling vision of regional policy.