Turkey, Iran Compartmentalize Ties to Sidestep Differences

After months of sharp disagreement about the conflict in Syria, Turkey is eager to compartmentalize its relationship with Iran and focus on areas where the two countries can cooperate. Yet, despite the attempts to brand the recent meeting between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a “turning point” for the two countries’ relationship, the two sides continue to have serious disagreements about the price of natural gas, the Syrian civil war and the future of the region.

Nevertheless, there are areas in which the two sides can work together to deepen trade and political ties. For Turkey, this effort is part of a larger strategy to reboot its foreign policy. And for the Islamic Republic, the outreach to Turkey is aimed at improving the economy and demonstrating to the Iranian people the government’s renewed commitment to expanding political and economic ties with states in the region.

In November 2013, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, in southern Iraq. The trip was part of a concentrated effort to reshape Turkey’s image, tarnished by Ankara’s halting response to the upheaval sweeping the region, and to resuscitate many of the core components of Ankara’s pre-Arab uprising foreign policy. To symbolize his commitment to a sectarian-free foreign policy, Davutoglu, a Sunni Muslim, donned a black shirt and a dark green tie to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the third Shiite Imam. The gesture and visit were a symbolic attempt to recast Turkey as a non-sectarian actor, working toward the resolution of the region’s numerous conflicts, both frozen and open.

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