By Saqib Akbar

Historically, there have been ups and downs in ties between Iran and Turkey. However, in the modern history it was on 22 April 1926 that the first treaty of friendship between the two countries was signed in Tehran. The basic principles of this treaty were friendship, neutrality and non-aggression towards each other. It was also agreed that joint action would be taken against those elements involved in anti-government activities and inimical to peace and security. Both the countries had internal problems with their Kurdish minorities at that time too.

On July 2, 1934, Reza Shah Pahlavi visited Turkey at the invitation of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. High-ranking officials including the head of military were also accompanying him during this visit. The delegation visited several regions in Turkey. Reza Shah Pahlavi was reportedly very impressed by Mustafa Kemal’s modernization reforms and he saw this as an example for his own country. It can be said that the King of Iran decided to make his country a secular state during this visit.

In August 1955, the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), a mutual security-pact between Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan and Britain, was established. It was for the first time that Pakistan also joined an alliance with the countries of the region. This treaty tells us that its member states had come together to counter the threat of Soviet socialism.

In July 1964 the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD), aimed at joint economic projects between Iran, Turkey and Pakistan was established. General Ayub Khan was at the helm of affairs in Pakistan then. This is considered to be a golden era of friendship between these countries.

After the success of the Islamic revolution in 1979 in Iran, the relations between Iran and Turkey were hit by a period of coldness. There were many basic reasons for these unfriendly ties. Firstly, relationship between Iran and the West was very tense after the victory of this revolution. Secondly, the United States and Iran saw a breakdown of diplomatic relations after 1979. Thirdly, the US imposed economic and military sanctions on Iran. Fourthly, Iran ended its alliance with Israel that was established during the reign of Shah and turned over the Israeli embassy in Tehran to the Palestinian Al-Fatah organization. At the same time Turkey had been trying for years to get the membership of European Union and was also a member of the US-led NATO military alliance. It had also established diplomatic, economic and military relations with Israel. In this backdrop it was not possible for Tehran and Ankara to maintain the ties that were established in the past. Later, Islamic awakening or Arab spring arose and spread across the Arab world, and Iran and Turkey were seen supporting opposing camps at various places.

Turkey and Iran have taken opposing positions in Syria conflict. Iran has been firmly backing the Syrian government of Bashar-ul-Assad while Turkey is providing every kind of support to the groups fighting the forces aligned to Assad. The US and the regional Arab countries have been supporting anti-Assad groups right from the start of this war. However, after Iran’s persuasion, Russia also became party to this conflict and it played the major role in changing the balance of power on the ground in Syria. Inclusion of Russia soured relations between Ankara and Moscow, reaching its maximum when a Russian jet was downed by Turkey. Russia reacted strongly to it, imposing several kinds of sanctions on Turkey. Finally, this short cold war between Turkey and Russia ended. Iran, Russia and Turkey held several joint meetings on Syria crisis, which were also attended by representatives of the Syrian government as well as opposition. Such meetings were indicative that Turkey had some complaints with the US attitude with regard to Syria’s internal affairs. This became evident when the US formed a new anti-Damascus opposition based on Syrian Kurds and some Arab militant groups. Turkey strongly objected to this new formation. It believes that providing weapons and power to Syrian Kurds will encourage and have a domino effect on its own Kurdish population, who have already became a headache for the central government. The conflict over Syria was not over yet that the issue of Iraqi Kurdistan emerged with more intensity and vigor and the leader of semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq, Masoud Barzani announced the date of referendum on whether to support separation from Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the possibility of Turkey gaining EU membership is becoming less likely with the passage of time. In the immediate past, a former French president, who was the head of EU, said it plainly that the EU was a Christian grouping and that Turkey could not be accepted as its member. Turkey's former Prime Minister Arbakan, who could also be termed as Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political mentor, had began efforts to form economic alliance of major Islamic countries as a substitute of the EU. Now Turkey’s EU membership bid is again facing hurdles.

In a recent statement, the German Chancellor said he will consult other members during a meeting of the EU to be held this month, and will stress that Turkey should not be given the membership of the union. Whereas in a recent interview with Espagnol Weekly, Turkish President Erdogan said that although the talks concerning Ankara’s accession with the EU will continue, however, we didn’t want it anymore now.

Changes that are taking place in the Islamic world especially relating to issues in the Middle East have brought Iran and Turkey further closer. Recent developments in Qatar are also part of the changes which are reducing friction between Iran and Turkey. Traditionally, both Qatar and Turkey have been supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Qatar is also among the main members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is considered as an anti-Iran coalition of Arab states in the Gulf. The GCC had supported Iraq under Saddam during its eight-year war against Iran.  Qatar was passing through very difficult days when some Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia severed ties and cut trade and transport links with it. Iran and Turkey were the two countries that helped Qatar in those tiring days. Land access to Turkey for Qatar was possible only through Iran which it allowed. Thus, Turkey is using the land route through Iran to make goods reach Iranian ports where from they are exported to Qatar. As a consequence, this important regional issue helped bringing Turkey and Iran closer to one another.

Ties between Iran and Turkey are now improving than ever before. Referendum in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan, which has shaken the regional countries, played the main part in this regard. Kurds live in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. Maximum population of Kurds is in Turkey and it historically has faced more challenges from them and this problem is still haunting it. Kurdistan’s split from Iraq will be considered first step towards division of all regional countries. Therefore, the sensitivity expressed by Iran and Turkey on this matter is understandable, and the mutual developments at military level between these two countries need to be seen in this context. It is also noteworthy in this regard that Israel is the only country in the world that has officially supported the referendum on the secession of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also strongly protested Tel Aviv’s backing to an independent Kurdish state and by this way it can be said the Kurd problem has negatively affected diplomatic ties between Ankara and Jerusalem.

There has been increasing cooperation between political and military leaderships of Turkey and Iran these days. Ahead of a scheduled visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Iran, Turkey's Military Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar arrived in Tehran on Monday morning (October 2, 2017) where he held detailed meetings with President Hassan Rouhani, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Baqeri and other leaders. Baqeri paid an official three-day visit to Turkey in mid-August at the head of a high-ranking politico-military delegation. It was the first visit by an Iranian chief of staff of the Armed Forces to Turkey and prior to this Dr Hassan Rouhani also visited Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s arrival in Tehran on Wednesday (4 October, 2017) also points towards enhancing bilateral relations between these two countries.

Speaking at a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart General Hulusi Akar in Tehran on Monday, General Baqeri said that the Iranian and Turkish armed forces would broaden cooperation in training, holding war games and exchanging experiences on border security. Addressing the reporters, both the leaders said the two countries have common and similar positions on the recent referendum held in Kurdistan region and believe that it was unacceptable, adding that Iraq’s territorial integrity must be preserved.

Baqeri said they discussed a range of issues in their meeting earlier in the day including exploring avenues for military cooperation to assist the Muslim people in Myanmar and in Islamic countries.

The top Turkish commander, for his part, said Iran and Turkey agreed to continue the fight against terrorism, increase security in border areas and boost military cooperation besides trying to cooperate in political and economic matters.

Before visiting Tehran, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during an interview in Ankara, had described that Iraqi Kurdish referendum would be the top most issue to be discussed with the Iranian leadership. During his visit, Erdogan held crucial talks with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a joint press conference with Iranian President Dr Hassan Rouhani following their meeting in Tehran on Wednesday that Turkey would take stronger steps in response to Kurdistan region referendum, adding that Ankara had already taken some measures in coordination with the Iraqi central government and Iran. He said Turkey considered the referendum illegitimate, stressing that the vote was supported by Israel and could only isolate the Kurdish region. The Turkish leader also said that the goal of raising Turkish-Iranian trade volume to $30 billion from the current $10 billion remained on the agenda, and that the two sides would conduct trade in their own currencies to limit foreign exchange pressures.

It is expected that relations between Turkey and Iran will touch new heights as a result of this visit. In the backdrop of this increasing cooperation between Ankara and Tehran, Pakistan needs to take review of its policies and decide where and how to fit itself in the new alliances formed at the world level. In my view there is no point in being ambiguous or beating about the bush now, and that Pakistan, in its own interest, will have to adopt a relatively bold foreign policy right now.