Following a three-month hiatus, talks between global powers and Iran over its nuclear program are set to resume later this week. As tensions continue to mount, with economic sanctions and an oil embargo on Tehran poised to come into force this summer, the stakes are extremely high.
But even before Iran sits down at the bargaining table with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, there are signs of strain. One of the biggest issues? Location. Tehran had initially lobbied for the talks to take place in Baghdad or Beijing. In the end, the countries compromised on Istanbul.
Their choice underscores Turkey’s growing importance as a diplomatic superpower. It also highlights the complex relationship between Iran and Turkey.
In many ways, the two countries are diametrically opposed. Turkey is a constitutionally secular state, while Iran is a theocracy. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Turkey has played a crucial counterbalancing role to Iran’s growing influence. Historically the two countries have viewed each other with suspicion.
However, Ankara’s relationship with Tehran is far from purely adversarial. The two countries share intricate trade ties and have stood together as allies in the past, particularly over energy policy. Turkey has been ambiguous on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, with Turkish leaders alternately expressing suspicion and support for Tehran’s enrichment program.
Here are five reasons why Turkey’s relationship with Iran matters, as nuclear talks heat up:
1. Turkey is dependent on Iran for much of its energy needs. Iran accounts for 18 per cent of Turkey’s gas imports and 22 per cent of its oil. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing domestic pressure as the price of crude continues to rise. Turkey has felt the effect of sanctions on Iran more acutely than European countries, fuelling sympathy for Tehran.
“We are not like Italy or Greece who only get 2 per cent of their oil needs from Iran. It is easy for them or France to give up Iranian oil. but it is different for us, and they have to understand that,” Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said.
2. As Iran’s critics pursue sanctions and diplomacy, Turkey is one of the few Western-friendly nations with an open line to Tehran. Iranians can freely travel to Turkey without a visa. Turkish leaders have also repeatedly expressed confidence in Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is peaceful, and continue to hold high-level state visits with Iranian leaders.
Mr. Erdogan has worked for years to cultivate ties with Tehran, repeatedly taking Iran’s side in its dispute with the West over its nuclear development plans. “Iranian leaders are telling us it’s not in accordance with Islamic law to use such a destructive weapon. Their program is peaceful and we have to believe their words,” said Mr. Yildiz.
3. Bilateral trade between Turkey and Iran has reached $16-billion over the last 10 years. Mr. Erdogan has vowed to increase that to $35-billion by 2015. Frozen out of other countries by sanctions, Iranian businesses have increasingly chosen to set up shop in Turkey.
Last year, Iranian companies accounted for the majority of foreign-owned companies in the country. Increased trade boosts leverage for both sides. If Turkey isolates Iran, it will loose a vital outlet for trade. If Turkey angers Iran, it could shutter its businesses, robbing Ankara of billions of dollars of business.
4. Despite Turkey’s reliance on Iran for energy needs, as well as its burgeoning trade and rhetorical support, it has also taken a tough stance towards Tehran.
Turkey has been extremely critical of Iran’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is also participating in the proposed NATO missile shield project, designed to thwart Iranian missiles. While Ankara’s positions
on those two issues have angered Iran, they have bolstered the country’s credibility with its NATO partners.
5. This isn’t the first time Turkey has waded into the Iran nuclear dispute. In 2010 Mr. Erdogan and Brazilian President Lula da Silva travelled to Tehran and offered to outsource Iranian enrichment of uranium to Turkey to avoid further sanctions on Iran.
Answering criticism from the international community at the time, Mr. Erdogan summarized Turkey’s interests in resolving the nuclear dispute.
“In fact, there is no nuclear weapon in Iran now but Israel, which is also located in our region, possesses nuclear arms,” he said. “Turkey is the same distance from both of them.”