What’s Next for Turkish-Iranian Relations After Diplomatic Flare-Up?

On Saturday, Turkey rebuked Iran for “offensive language” aimed at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from Iran. The reaction from Iran came in connection with a controversial poem read by Erdoğan suggests Iran’s northwestern provinces belong to Azerbaijan.

What Did Erdoğan Say?

A couple of days before the incident, Erdoğan paid a visit to close ally Azerbaijan for a military parade marking Baku’s victory over Armenia after six weeks of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.

During his visit, the Turkish President recited a poem that Tehran said could fan separatism among Iran’s Azeri minority. Iran is home to a substantial Azeri community, mostly in northwestern provinces next to Azerbaijan and Armenia, where the Aras river defines the national borders.

The poem sparked particular fury from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Iran’s ISNA news agency.

Turkey-Iran Fight Sparked by Poem

It has also triggered a diplomatic row between Iran and Turkey. According to Arab News, the Iranian Government summoned the Turkish ambassador to Tehran to complain about Erdoğan’s “interventionist” comments.

However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told his Iranian counterpart in a phone call on Saturday that Iran’s “baseless and heavy statements” are “unacceptable.”

Regardless of the outcome of this situation, it proves how delicate the relationship between Ankara and Tehran is. In recent years, both countries have strengthened their cooperation in many ways. For example, although Turkey and Iran continue to rival each other in Syria, they both condemn Washington’s continued presence in the country.

Both nations also resent the growing threat by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and its regional offshoots.

Iran is an Unreliable Partner for Turkey

When picking a fight with Turkey, Iran has to be careful about how far it is willing to go to provoke their Turkish counterparts, especially when US sanctions continue to cripple the Iranian economy. Ankara views Tehran as a strategic source for natural gas and crude oil resources that is crucial for its energy security and diversification efforts. For Iran, Turkey is the biggest importer of its natural gas and a key importer of its crude oil. Therefore, it is likely that Erdoğan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will continue to need each other from an economic perspective in the future.

Despite this, Turkey’s latest move to withdraw from more military strongholds in Syria’s north-west province of Idlib, for the purpose of eliminating potential risks and strategic vulnerabilities that Turkish forces could face in the event of a renewed offensive by the Assad regime and Iranian militias, suggests that Syria will remain a thorn in the side for both Erdoğan and Rouhani.

The arrival of a Biden administration in the US will also leave the Turkish President increasingly isolated on the international stage. Turkey expert Ömer Taşpınar wrote for the Asia Times that Joe Biden will not be afraid to speak out against Turkish autocracy in the same way Donald Trump was. The Turkish regime will be left with fewer allies by the time January arrives.

Turkey Should Strengthen its Relationship With Saudi Arabia

Mithat Rende, former Turkish Ambassador to Qatar, said Biden will make Turkey and Saudi Arabia realize that their sustained rivalry cannot continue. This is because the incoming US president will be equally critical of the Saudi regime.

Also, the Turkish economy is deteriorating at the moment and Saudi money can bring new money into the country.

Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood will remain a stumbling block for Riyadh. The 2011 Arab Spring badly damaged the relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but the 2020s could usher in a new era of Turkish-Saudi cooperation.

It is in Turkey’s best interests to start rebuilding its relations with Saudi Arabia. Its dispute with Iran over the poem Erdoğan recited recently may result in nothing, but it also highlights how tense the Turkish-Iranian relationship is. The Turkish President must tread carefully.