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Turkey's Tehran visit points to growing cooperation

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, 4 October 2017. Reuters

Leaders of Iran and Turkey pledged to work together on security and stability in the Middle East after talks in Tehran on Wednesday. While presidents Hassan Rouhani and Recep Tayyip Erdogan emphasised their common opposition to the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, their meeting also reflects the two countries’ growing influence in the Middle East.

The 25 September independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan identified a common point of interest for Iran and Turkey, each of which have large Kurdish minorities of their own.

Even before Erdogan flew to Tehran to meet Rouhani on Wednesday, both their countries’ military chiefs agreed to step up cooperation.

“Iran and Turkey are two old states – they are not colonial constructions like Iraq – so the main concern will be to emphasise the importance status quo,” says Clement Therme, researcher on Iran with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“They share the same security concern and they will ask for the respect of international law and the protection of the borders of the state.”

Even before Erdogan’s visit, Rouhani had been saying the two countries could expand their actions in the diplomatic sphere in remarks reflecting a softening in positions regarding the conflict in Syria.

“At the beginning of the crisis with Syria, Turkey wanted to have the Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad resign, but they gradually changed their mind and now they are not talking about the resignation of al Assad anymore,” notes Farhad Rezaei, a research fellow at the Center for Iranian Studies in Ankara.

Clement Therme also notes the position of the Kurds in Syria fits into common concerns of both Ankara and Tehran.

“They are also afraid of a Kurdish region in the north of Syria,” notes Clement Therme. “So more and more, they share the same interests in Syria.”

However, Farhad Rezaei warns that Turkey and Iran run the risk of pushing too hard against the Kurds.

“One major risk is that antagonizing Kurds may result in uniting all Kurdish groups in the region against these countries,” Farhad Rezaei says. “I think this visit is for engineering a road map to see what Iran and Turkey can really do to bring [Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud] Barzani back in line.”

Erdogan’s visit to Tehran also has significance in light of the shifting balance of power in the Middle East.

“It shows once again that the Arab states are not in a position to challenge Turkish and Iranian regional power anymore, and that the non-Arab states of the region are at the moment the more powerful ones,” Clement Therme says.

“Saudi Arabia is in difficulty because of the Yemen war, and Egypt is facing a political and economic crisis,” he continues. “So I think this meeting shows that the Arab states are no longer able, through the Arab League, to shape the future of the Middle East.”