“We, as Turkey, are ready to do our bit to bring our bilateral relations to the level they deserve in all areas,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rohani in Ankara.
His remarks stood in marked contrast to the declared goal by the United States to put maximum economic pressure on Tehran through sanctions.
In reference to the conflict in Syria, Erdogan said: “There are many steps that Turkey and Iran can take together to stop the fighting in the region and to establish peace.” Rohani said in translated remarks that “Syria’s territorial integrity must be respected by all sides. Both countries are of the same opinion regarding this.”
Iran does, however, keep a military presence in Syria, directly and through Shia proxy fighters, including the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Erdogan said Ankara did not support the US decision to leave the international nuclear agreement with Iran. He repeated Turkey’s rejection of US sanctions against Tehran. “I want to stress once more that we (Turkey) do not support these decisions and that American sanctions against Iran increase the risks to the region’s safety,” he said, adding that Turkey would “stand by the Iranian people.”
Turkey received a waiver by the United States that allows Ankara to buy Iranian oil until May 2019 despite sanctions designed to cripple Tehran’s oil industry. Erdogan has made it clear that his government would ignore the US measures even after the waiver runs out.
Erdogan’s position offers Iran an important outlet for oil exports as it tries to soften the effects of US efforts. Rohani said Iran was “ready to meet Turkey’s energy demands in [the] long-term,” the IRNA news agency reported. At the news conference in Ankara, Erdogan called Rohani his “esteemed brother.”
Predominantly Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran are traditional rivals and heirs to the Ottoman and Persian empires that vied for influence in the region over centuries. Only last year, Erdogan accused Iran of trying to spread “Persian nationalism” in the Middle East.
However, the two governments have pushed their differences aside to preserve what they see as shared interests in the region. Even though Ankara and Tehran are in opposing camps in the Syrian conflict, the two countries have been cooperating with Russia in the so-called Astana process.
Both governments share a deep distrust of US policies in the Middle East and have been helping Qatar in the emirate’s row with US ally Saudi Arabia. The neighbours agree in their determination to fight Kurdish militants in north-western Iran and eastern Turkey.
Erdogan and Rohani did not comment on the US decision to pull back American forces from Syria but both countries have been critical of the US military presence there. “Agreement for stability,” the pro-Erdogan newspaper Star said in a headline December 21.
Turkish-Iranian relations are not without potential sources of tensions, however. While Turkey has been supporting rebel forces in Syria, Iran has stood by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Turkish military interventions into Syria in 2016 and last spring, as well as a threat by Erdogan to send Turkish soldiers into north-eastern Syria to push a Kurdish militia back from the border, have raised concerns in Tehran. Eshagh al-Habib, Iran’s UN envoy, told the UN Security Council that “all foreign forces whose presence is not permitted by the Syrian Government should leave the country,” IRNA reported.