Heyday of Turkey-Iran relations coming to an end – expert

The heyday of relations between Turkey and Iran appears to be behind us, Vahid Yücesoy, a PhD candidate at the University of Montreal with focus on Iran and Turkey interests, said.

However, it is not possible to say that Ankara and Tehran are on “conflicting terms,” Yücesoy told Nervana Mahmoud, the host of Ahval’s Turkish Trends podcast programme.

As the region’s two non-Arab counties Turkey and Iran have been engaged in a battle for leadership in the Middle East.

Iran and Turkey’s differences over regional policy are most marked in Syria, where Ankara backs the Syria’s opposition in a civil war that began in 2011. Iran supports the government of President Bashar Assad, supplying militia, funding and military know-how.

Ties between long-time regional rivals Turkey and Iran started to improve in 2016, when the neighbours signed the Astana agreement together with Russia to try to end the Syrian conflict.

In June 2020 when Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Ankara, Zarif agreed that Iran would back Turkey’s preferred side in the Libyan conflict, and in return, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on the United States to withdraw sanctions on Iran.

In May 2018, former U.S. President Donald Trump imposed heavy sanctions on Iran after he withdrew the United States from Iran’s nuclear agreement with world powers. Washington maintains Iran is working to obtain nuclear-capable missiles, a claim Iran denies.

Turkey is a very important country for Iranians because it is one of the few countries to which they can travel visa-free, Yücesoy said, adding that every year, millions of Iranians visit Turkey.

In addition to the ones visiting, there are lots of Iranians bringing their investment to Turkey, participating Turkey’s economic programme, which is selling citizenship in exchange of $250,000 worth of investment, he said.

“Iranians are the biggest participants of this programme that is very popular in the Middle East, usually by buying properties in the country,” Yücesoy said.

This programme is one of the methods that Erdoğan administration attracts capital into Turkish economy that is struggling lately, according to Yücesoy.

“The money is coming to Turkey in informal ways as a result of the sanctions on Iran but as long as it contributes to Turkey’s economy, Turkish officials turn a blind eye on it,” the analyst said.

As the Iranians can travel to Turkey visa-free, the country is also a popular destination for lots of Iranian refugees, (from political prisoners to dissidents or LGBT activists), all types of citizens, which is at loggerheads with Iranian regime, Yücesoy said.

“However, we hear reports that some of these dissidents are being assassinated in Turkey and some have been sent back to Iran, in spite of their lives are in danger over there,” he said.

There has been an increase in abductions, deportations and assassinations of Iranian activists in Turkey since 2016. 

Yücesoy pointed to Turkey’s arrest of an Iranian diplomat, saying it caused friction in bilateral relations.

Turkish police in February arrested Mohammad Reza Naserzadeh, staff member of the Iran’s Istanbul consulate, in connection with the killing of former defence official Masoud Molavi Vardanjani in Istanbul in November 2019.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.