It is now something of a cliche to note that Turkey’s foreign policy mantra of “zero problems” has given way to problems everywhere Ankara looks. Nowhere is that truer than in the Turkey-Iran relationship, which has been buffeted from all sides over the past three years, reaching its lowest ebb with the two sides’ diametrically opposed positions in the stalemated Syrian civil war.
In that time, Turkey and Iran have increasingly vied for influence across the region. In Iraq, Turkey backed the losing electoral bloc in the 2010 elections, and currently shelters fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. By contrast, Iran’s clout in Iraq has grown as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has consolidated power. In Palestine, Turkey strengthened its relationship with Hamas, inviting its leader, Khaled Mashaal, to Ankara in February, while Iran has boosted support to Hamas’ smaller and more radical rivals in Gaza, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Even before these dynamics emerged, Turkey’s commitment to NATO was becoming a wedge issue between Turkey and Iran, with Turkey’s hosting of radar for NATO’s missile-defense system especially contentious. Iran threatened to pre-emptively attack the site, prompting a vehement reaction from Turkey. And despite Ankara’s strong opposition to allowing NATO to name Iran as a threat, Iran’s nuclear and missile program was featured as the primary concern in Turkey’s own 2005 National Security Policy Document, known as the red book.
Nevertheless, Turkey has been ambivalent about the sanctions regime against Iran and its nuclear program, given Turkey and Iran’s previously flourishing trade in goods and energy. The U.S. has granted Ankara several waivers that exempt it from aspects of U.S. sanctions and allow it to continue importing some Iranian oil. Iran still provides just less than half of Turkey’s oil imports, although Turkey’s method of payment—gold—was blocked by fresh sanctions that came into effect in July. Turkey was also chastened by its failed efforts, alongside Brazil, to broker a nuclear deal with Iran in 2010, but Turkey continues to insist that Iran has a right to enrichment and that isolating Iran will not work. Turkish officials, moreover, still claim in private that Turkey’s “neutrality” and high-level access in Tehran allow Ankara to play a key back-channel role.