Iran deal and Turkey: time for a soft-power reset

As sanctions are lifted, both Turkey and Iran get a chance to radically expand positive aspects of their relationship.

Iran Turkey Relations Erdogan Rouhani Diplomacy
Turkey has reasons to be both worried about and encouraged by the Iran deal, writes Unver [Getty]

The result of the extended negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal brought substantial sanction relief for the country and greater oversight on its nuclear program.

Brokered between Iran and the UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany (P5+1), the agreement has divided international public opinion.

While proponents of the deal believe that the agreement has the potential to normalise Iran over the time by opening the country to foreign investment and political restraints of trade, critics believe Iran’s sectarian agenda and its expanding outreach in the Middle East could provide it with a good opportunity to shift the political dynamics in its favour.

Northern corridor

Is Iran back from the cold?

The overused term “Shiite crescent” is still the primary lens through which other players in the region look at Iran – especially how sanctions relief will strengthen and extend the reach of this strategic encirclement.

While Israel is concerned about the northern corridor of that encirclement and how it extends to Lebanon through Syria, Gulf countries are worried about its southern reach and its potential to destabilise the predominantly Shiite and oil-producing provinces on the coast of the Gulf.

Turkey, on the other hand, has reasons to be both worried about and encouraged by the Iran deal.

Topping the list of reasons to worry is Syria; both in terms of President Bashar al-Assad’s future and the perceived security threat of an emerging “Kurdish belt” in the north of the country.

Ankara has repeatedly expressed its discomfort with the link between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Democratic Union Party (PYD), and fears that Kurdish gains in Syria will spillover into Turkey as an emboldened and less conciliatory PKK.

Furthermore Ankara, hoping to actively shape the Syrian civil war, has become increasingly uncomfortable about the union of three large chunks of Kurdish-Syrian territory: Afrin, Kobane, and northern reaches of the Hasakah governorate.

Twofold concerns

Turkey’s concerns were twofold: the unified left wing Kurdish administration would orbit the PKK and cause unrest within Turkish borders and the uninterrupted Kurdish line would span across Turkey’s Iraq and Syria borders.

This line could feasibly span from the Iranian border all the way to Turkey’s Hatay province – rendering the Kurdish political movement – and its armed elements – much harder to contain geographically.

Adding the sectarian dimension to Iran’s potential reach across the Kurdish corridor would also complicate Turkey’s ability to influence the political future of Iraq and Syria as it would be essentially cut off from both countries.

Iran’s sectarian point of view, influences across the “Kurdish belt”, and the substantial Alawite dominance in Latakia, sets Turkey up for nearly complete isolation. The Sunni Muslim majority Turkey would be predominantly bordered by Shiite states.

Although other Turkish political parties do not necessarily view this as a bad omen, both President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AK party) view this as a disastrous scenario: a scenario which also has vast domestic implications as well as wider regional ones – most notable being Turkey’s role within the Ikhwan network.

Significant opportunities

Yet for Turkey, there are also a number of significant opportunities emerging with the Iran agreement – almost all of which are economic in nature.

The Turkish ministry of economy has been readying itself for sanctions relief on Iran and have designated its neighbour as a trade target in both the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years.

...Ankara and Tehran have managed to cooperate in both trade and tourism, while remaining competitors for regional influence.


The day after P5+1 and Iran declared the agreement, the Turkish business community has expressed direct interest in Iran, urging the next government – whichever form it take in the next months – to prioritise business interests, among other regional concerns.

The Iran deal is expected to help Turkey’s poorer eastern and southeastern provinces specifically, allowing these regions to return back to the trade hub status they enjoyed during pre-sanctions period.

This will specifically reinforce Turkey’s Kurdish “peace process” attempts by providing lucrative economic alternatives to militancy and establishing functional local economies.

Long-term benefits

A long-term benefit of Iranian sanction relief is that it may open up a door for Turkey’s energy interests.

Turkey has consistently prioritised economic growth and aims to acquire higher volumes of natural gas supplies for its industries. For this reason, it has long been interested in Iran’s gas fields in South Pars.

Turkey has expressly declared its interest in becoming a regional energy hub, with the primary intention to transit natural gas to European markets.

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To that end, both Turkey and the European Union have been eager to import South Pars gas, although the field itself has not been developed sufficiently to start exports.

The hope is that as sanctions are lifted, South Pars will open for foreign investment, and eventually be built up enough to provide for a large European market.

Then again, such outside greed and hunger for Iranian resources may be seen as an unwelcome intrusion by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – whose business extension Khatam al-Anbia was first awarded with the 15th and 16th phases of development, but was later replaced with Iran Shipbuilding & Offshore Industries Complex Co. (ISOICO).

Bilateral ties

Turkey and Iran have so far succeeded in separating their bilateral relations from their regional interests.

This is why Ankara and Tehran have managed to cooperate in both trade and tourism, while remaining competitors for regional influence.

In that, there is a limit to how much Turkish-Iranian relations can deteriorate, as well as limits to how much they can improve.

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With the sanctions lifted, both countries get a chance to radically improve their economic relationship, increase tourism traffic, and highlight trade cooperation.

To complement and substantially increase the economic benefits of post-sanctions relations, both countries need a soft-power reset and need to emphasise their cultural, historical, and economic relationship.

The hope is that Turkey and Iran will choose to focus on cooperative aspects of their relationship and choose to shelve conflict-prone policy areas to generate trust. Trust which can then spillover to ease and heal any “hard power” rifts between them.

Akin Unver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.