Iran and Turkey: rivals in Syrian war, but friends in trade

Iranian President Rouhani arrived in Ankara with a coterie of ministers and businessmen. Iran and Turkey hope to double their trade by 2015 and may be betting on an end to sanctions on Iran.

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (r.) and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani speak during a signing ceremony for the agreements between their countries at the Cankaya Palace in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, June 9, 2014. Rouhani is in Turkey for a two-day state visit.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived in Turkey today for an official visit as the two regional powers seek to restore warm ties and bolster business, despite diametrically opposed roles in the Syrian conflict. 

Business is a priority: Turkey and Iran want to double the value of bilateral trade to $30 billion by 2015, an aspiration that would be helped by any easing of sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy, as a result of a nuclear deal. Mr. Rouhani tweeted that he arrived in the Turkish capital Ankara with seven ministers, Iran’s central bank governor, and “more than 100 Iranian business executives.”

It was all smiles and diplomatic niceties before the cameras, with signing ceremonies of several cooperation agreements. Both sides sought to gloss over their history of rivalry. The largely Shiite Islamic Republic and mostly Sunni Turkey have long presented competing models for how to blend aspects of Islam and democracy.

In neighboring Syria, Turkey has been instrumental in supporting rebels bent on toppling President Bashar al-Assad, while Iran has done all in its power to bolster Mr. Assad, a decades-long ally and conduit for Hezbollah, while losing more and more of its Revolutionary Guard officers. Turkey, whose border is a staging point for foreign anti-Assad jihadists crossing into Syria, rejected last week's presidential election there; Iran hailed it as a positive stop toward peace. 

Yet today Turkish President Abdullah Gul called Iran “an old, valuable friend” and said Rouhani’s two-day trip, the first official visit by an Iranian president in 18 years, was a “turning point.”

“Our relations are not just about two countries. They are important for the whole region and the world,” said Mr. Gul. 

Rouhani said regional instability did not “favor anyone,” and that Turkey and Iran coming together would mean “connecting the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.” He said both countries are “resolved to fight violence, extremism and terrorism.”

The strategic rivalry has been softened by the fact that Turkey has served as a key link between sanctions-hit Iran and the global economy. Iran already supplies upwards of 30 percent of Turkey’s natural gas needs; major Turkish exports to Iran include machinery, iron and steel products, and electrical devices, according to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In January Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Tehran, where he criticized Western and UN sanctions on Iran. The sanctions helped depress bilateral trade between the two neighbors to $15 billion last year, down from $22 billion in 2012. 

Ankara has been accused in recent months of trying to help Iran evade sanctions with gold transfers and deals worth billions, which Turkish officials dismiss as part of a conspiracy to tarnish its reputation. Both countries want to bring diplomatic relations back to their May 2010 level, when Turkey and Brazil – both trusted by Iran at the time – brokered a nuclear fuel-swap in Tehran, under which more than half of Iran’s enriched uranium was to be taken out of the country. The US rejected the deal, and voted instead to impose a new round of UN sanctions.

Rouhani’s visit comes as top US and Iranian nuclear negotiating teams meet in Geneva for two days of bilateral meetings to break an impasse in nuclear talks before a July 20 deadline to reach a deal.

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