For centuries, Turkey and Iran have been competing against one another for regional supremacy, but in recent years the relationship had hit a particularly low point. As the Syrian crisis turned into an all-out civil war, Tehran and Ankara were fishing in increasingly troubled waters. When I asked my driver in Tehran why the Iranians still support Assad, he said, “Syria is strategically important for us. Look at Iraq, look at Egypt: it is not a matter of choice for us. Syria is our only ally in the Mediterranean.”
To understand just how much has changed in Iran–Turkey relations since the Syrian uprising began, you only have to flick through Stephen Kinzer’s Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future. The book was published in 2010, but the factors then uniting Iran and Turkey are now causing deep divisions. Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent based in Istanbul from 1996 to 2000, writes: “Although these countries have been enemies for more than a quarter century, they have vital interests in common. Both want a stable Iraq, a stable Afghanistan, and a stable Pakistan. Both detest radical Sunni movements like al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Both would like to limit Russian influence in the Middle East.”
Three years later, the interests of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party have little in common with those of Iran. Turkey openly supports the radical groups fighting in Syria, and Tehran would like more Russian influence in the Middle East.
Yet there is still a window of opportunity. Both sides will have to give and take if there is to be any progress: after all, it takes two to tango. Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, attended Rouhani’s inauguration ceremony and met with the new president the following day to discuss bilateral relations and Syria. Despite their differences over Bashar Al-Assad, Turkey may find common ground with Iran in preventing the formation of a de facto autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria.
Trade and tourism are more areas that Iran and Turkey can build upon. The Kish Bazaar in central Tehran is full of Turkish merchandise. Young Iranian men and women fly to Turkish coastal towns for their vacations every year. A young truck driver told me his spare car-parts business is in good shape, and that it imports from Turkey. “If they could do something about this money wiring and banking transactions, it could even be better,” he added.
The improvement of Iran–Turkey relations have taken on a new urgency since two Turkish pilots were kidnapped in Beirut just over a week ago. Iran seemed the natural partner for Turkey to call on and ask for help, given their leverage over Lebanon’s Hezbollah. A group called Zuwwar Al-Imam Rida claimed responsibility for the abduction, saying the pilots would be freed in exchange for nine Lebanese Shi'ite hostages being held in Syria. Although Hezbollah are not directly responsible for the kidnapping, they hold considerable sway over the country’s Shi'a population. Iran’s goodwill and ability to facilitate the rescue of the two pilots may be the game-changer for bilateral relations. Iran can win Turkish public support by helping the Turkish government. This may provide an opportunity for Turkey to negotiate a certain easing of sanctions on its behalf. Even in this dance, someone has to make the first move. Iran looks ready now.