In the wake of recent statements made by Iran’s newly elected President Hassan Rouhani suggesting a renewal in relations with the United States, popular sentiment towards the Gulf nation has slowly begun to shift. Following years of acrimonious discourse and incessant feuding over a nuclear program that, despite increasingly biting sanctions and international condemnation, marched inexorably on, the first indications of a change in posture were made apparent this past week at the United Nations’ 68th General Assembly. Though many have been quick to point out that the statements made during speeches at the UN could very well be little more than a smokescreen designed to buy time for the Iranian nuclear program, the remarkable change in discourse transcends even the degree of moderation that typified the presidency of another moderate Iranian president, Mohammed Khatami, and gives rise to a possibility that was all but unthinkable as recently as last year.
Nevertheless, any rapid change in a relationship predicated on mistrust and continually exacerbated by ongoing proxy wars cannot be rendered without consequences, regardless if they’re intentional or not. Indeed, the leaders of countries as distinct as Saudi Arabia and Israel have expressed similar concerns over what an Iran unencumbered by sanctions would mean for a region already ripe with problems and in desperate of more solutions and less complications. One scenario of equal importance that often goes overlooked due to more salient issues is how the relationship between Turkey and Iran would be affected if Iran were to assume a more prominent role in the region.
Despite periodic quarrels concerning mutual interests throughout the region, the two countries have maintained largely peaceful relations throughout the course of their respective histories. Economic ties between Ankara and Tehran have even grown exponentially over the past ten years, and Iranian natural gas now accounts for nearly 30% of all Turkish natural gas imports. Similarly, Iranian tourism throughout Turkey has continued to grow, and Iranian investments in the Turkish economy have risen as pressure coming from the West has led other Gulf nations to cut or severely reduce economic ties with Tehran.
Prosperous economic relations, however, will not eliminate the possibility of tension should Iran assume a higher profile role in the Middle East. Many in Tehran already believe that as Iran has become increasingly isolated, Turkey has become increasingly expansionistic and overtly obsequious with the West in allowing for the installation of NATO radars in southeast Turkey, and has utilized Iran’s relative seclusion to expand their influence throughout the region. If Iran were to seek out and gain a more favorable standing within the international community, the economic need that drove them to pursue increased trade and investment ties with Turkey, a nation lacking in natural resources, would vanish, as traditional ties again became readily available. Existing proxy battles between the two countries would become even more embittered as the two sides vied for influence in contentious areas such as Palestine and Syria.
Overtly conciliatory statements coming from Iran should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, it behooves the West to bear in mind the possible consequences of such a reconciliation, and to consider what types of problems may arise as a result. Though relations between Turkey and Iran are currently amicable, a clash between the two historically expansionistic and wildly influential regional actors is not beyond the realm of possibility and must be considered before any final decision is made.