TEHRAN, Iran — Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was until recently a frequent critic of Iran’s policies in the region. These criticisms were not only numerous, but also expressed at different levels — and particularly after differences over Syria became more serious. But would a coup in Turkey have changed relations between the two countries?
There is no doubt that Turkey-Iran relations in the past few years — and especially with the coming to office of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and the return of Iran to the international stage — has not been as warm as in the recent past. This cooling down is rooted in differences of opinion over developments related to the Arab Spring. The increasing political gap appears to also have had economic repercussions. Indeed, in the past three years, bilateral trade has been mired in a significant downward trend: In the first 11 months of 2015, trade volume dropped almost 30% to $9 billion, compared to the year before.
But do the differences over the Arab Spring and the declining economic component of the Tehran-Ankara relationship mean that Iran would have been happy with the removal of Erdogan through the Turkish military’s undemocratic intervention?
As the recent coup attempt in Turkey unfolded late on July 15, Iran — and in particular its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif —was among the first to react. But what is the reason for the immediate Iranian support for Erdogan, despite the serious differences over the region and especially Syria?
While the bilateral trade volume has been declining in recent years, the big picture is that economic exchanges have overall expanded since Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came into office. Indeed, pre-Erdogan Turkey, which suffered from continuous political instability, was so entangled with economic and security problems that it could under no circumstances have been a significant trade partner of Iran.
Erdogan, who embodies a combination of his predecessor Necmettin Erbakan in the realm of political Islam and his former partner Fethullah Gulen in the realm of ideological Islam, has been able to implement his own unique model of governance. This model has seen Turkey both continuing efforts to join the European Union while also seeking to develop relations with the East and regional and Islamic countries. Indeed, Erdogan has since the very beginning of his rule sought to establish closer ties with Iran.
The success of the attempted military coup would have brought about three fundamental problems for Iran.
First, it would have created instability in a neighboring country, and particularly triggered insecurity in Turkey’s eastern Kurdish region. The latter would have carried the risk of a spillover, potentially causing a crisis within Iran’s borders too.
Second, for Iran there are no desirable alternatives to the AKP. The person Erdogan accuses of masterminding the coup, Fethullah Gulen, is stridently anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite and especially opposes Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Thus, if Gulen really was behind the attempted coup, the coming into power of his followers would certainly have been undesirable for Tehran. If Erdogan’s claims of Gulen’s involvement are erroneous, the history of the Iran-Turkey relationship nevertheless suggests that military rule — or at least a dominant political role for the Turkish military — also spells trouble for bilateral ties.
The third reason why Iran views Erdogan as the best choice for Turkey is the character of the other parties in the country. Whether the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is a secular movement; the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); or the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is an ethnic movement — neither of these political groupings have ever had a good or close relationship with Iran.
There is another salient reason for Iran’s backing of Erdogan: Prior to the July 15-16 coup attempt, the Turkish president had decided to resume relations with Russia, effectively ending the crisis with Moscow after having apologized to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for the shooting down of a Russian warplane on the border with Syria. Given the latter, there has been the perception of the possibility of greater Turkish movement on the Syrian crisis, which could have a major impact since Syria has turned into the primary dispute between Iran and Turkey. However, with Erdogan’s purges in the military, there is the question of who will guide Turkey’s military strategy in the region, and especially in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, of the 360 generals in Turkey’s army, 127 have been sacked over alleged ties with the Gulen movement, while two more have resigned.
Yet, despite the many uncertainties, Erdogan’s continued rule is desirable for Iran primarily given that there are no real attractive alternatives, and also because changes in Turkey’s domestic politics is likely to change Ankara’s foreign policy in a direction that is in the interest of Tehran.
Al-Monitor spoke with prominent Iranian political and economic analyst Saeed Laylaz. He confirmed these perceptions, saying, “The unsuccessful coup in Turkey was the best option for Iran, because in the scenario that the military would have been successful, insecurity would have reached a maximum in Turkey and the condition of the [already] unstable region would have been on the threshold of an explosion.” He added, “Erdogan is certainly the best option for Iran, which the history of our relations shows. Still, things could be better if he changes his foreign policy, which evidence shows is on the way.”
In this vein, Nasser Hadian, a strategic expert and leading professor of international relations at Tehran University, told Al-Monitor, “Although we have various problems with Erdogan, we must acknowledge that the success of the military coup would not have been a good sign. We believe that every change in Turkey should come through the ballot box and not with guns and tanks.” Hadian added, “I think that after this failed coup, Turkey's position is weakened and thus we are going to see a more balanced relationship between Tehran and Ankara. On the other hand, we should consider that our relationship has always been pragmatic.” However, Hadian ominously warned, “This point must not be forgotten that the continuation of Erdogan’s trajectory in the domestic environment can reverse the situation, and even turn those opposed to the coup into opponents of Erdogan.”