Turkish leader threatens to impose sanctions, a day after semi-autonomous Iraqi region holds controversial referendum.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has arrived in Iran on Wednesday to hold crucial talks with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on the outcome of the Iraqi Kurdish referendum and other regional security issues.
Erdogan’s visit to Tehran comes as Ankara continues to seek regional consensus on how to block efforts by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to split from Iraq – a move Turkey fears would have a domino effect on its own 15 million ethnic Kurdish population.
Ahead of Erdogan’s visit, the Turkish foreign ministry announced on Tuesday that it wants Baghdad to take over from the KRG, the control of the border between Turkey and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
On Sunday, Erdogan told parliament members in Ankara that he expects to draw up an agreement with Iran, on how to respond to the KRG referendum.
Erdogan’s visit to Tehran has been expected since August. But his original agenda focusing on military cooperation to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), and the establishment of a de-escalation zones in Syria, has since been overshadowed by a new regional crisis following the Kurdish referendum.
Turkish and Iranian analysts agree that while Erdogan’s visit is important for both countries, Ankara has much more at stake on its outcome than Tehran.
From a military and security perspective, Erdogan’s visit to Iran is “very important”, as Turkey considers more sanctions on the KRG and its regional capital Erbil, including the shutting of its borders, said Sinem Koseoglu, Al Jazeera’s Turkey-based correspondent and analyst.
She said Turkey could leverage its warming relations with Iran to put more pressure on the KRG to backtrack from its plan to declare an independent state.
On Monday, Erdogan dispatched Gen. Hulusi Akar, the military Chief of General Staff , to Tehran, the first ever visit for a top Turkish military official since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
At their meeting, Akar and Iran’s military chief, Mohammed Hussein Bagheri, condemned the Kurdish referendum as unconstitutional. In August, Bagheri also became the first ever top military official to visit Ankara since 1979.
Akar also held separate talks with President Rouhani, who at the meeting warned that the deterioration of geographical boundaries, in the event of a KRG split from Iraq, would harm regional security and stability.
For his part, Akar said that Turkey and Iran, “will play an important role in the region’s stability and peace with improving cooperation”, following the Kurdish referendum.
On September 25, voters in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly to back a split from Baghdad, setting off a regional crisis.
Neighbouring Turkey and Iran, as well as Iraq’s central government in Baghdad have opposed the referendum, and have threatened to impose sanctions on the KRG should it decide to go ahead with its decision to declare an independent state.
The United Nations and the US, have also opposed the Kurdish referendum, saying it would distract operations against ISIL, as well as the civil war in Syria.
In the last week following the Kurdish referendum, Turkey has held joint military exercises with Iraq. Separately, Iraq also announced joint military exercises with Iran.
But so far, there have been no agreement reached on military exercises between Turkey and Iran.
Al Jazeera’s Koseoglu said Turkey stands to lose a lot more if its relations with Iraqi Kurdistan deteriorates.
She pointed out that KRG is Turkey’s largest trading partner next to Europe.
Last year trade between the two countries was estimated to be at least $7bn, and it is expected to increase to $14bn this year.
“So what if sanctions is implemented? The businessmen are going to lose, and business is a very important thing in politics as well. That is why until now Turkey has not shut down the borders. “
On Iran’s part, even if it shuts down its border with Iraq’s Kurdish region, it will still have other trade corridors going into Iraq, she said.
“So they can still continue to sell their products through the central government in Baghdad. So Iran is not going to lose in this case.”
Within Iran, there are an estimated six to eight million ethnic Kurds, but there have been no significant separatist movement among the ethnic population within its own border.
Iran has also maintained longstanding relations with Iraqi Kurds, supporting Kurdish armed groups during the rule of the Shah before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The KRG President Masoud Barzani was born in the Kurdish region of Iran.
During the Iran-Iraq war, the Kurds sided with Iran against Saddam Hussein, and Iran opened its doors to the families of Kurdish leaders during that conflict. Saddam also targeted both the Iranian and the Kurds with chemical weapons.
In recent years Iran’s peshmerga fighters fought alongside Iranian-backed militia forces against ISIL.
The Kurdish referendum crisis has pushed Turkey and Iran to set aside their differences for the time being, Rohollah Faghihi, a Tehran-based journalist and political analyst told Al Jazeera.
“There have been no sign of secessionism seen in Iran in the two past decades,” Faghihi said. “But when a crisis occurs next to Iran’s borders, it is natural for Tehran to get worried about them.”
Still he said, that a number of politicians and experts in Iran have argued that Tehran should not react “too harshly” like Erdogan did in recent days.
In response to the referendum, Erdogan warned of military action to stop the KRG splitting from Iraq and “ethnic and sectarian war”.
Faghihi said that despite the warming up of relations, there remains a mutual mistrust between Tehran and Ankara.
“They are actually saying that Erdogan could not be trusted and we shouldn’t follow Turkey’s footsteps for countering Kurdistan, by showing muscles and military power.”
Meanwhile, Sadegh Ghorbani, a Tehran-based analyst, agreed that while the Kurdish issue has drawn Turkey and Iran together, Iran “has the least concern about Kurds”.
“”Unlike in Iraq and Turkey, in Iran many Kurds consider themselves original Iranians,” he said.
“I think the main reason behind Iran’s opposition is that cessation of Kurdistan will harm the integrity of Iraq, and can create a new conflict near Iran’s borders and will also distract everyone from combating ISIL.”