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Turkey, Iran ties built on compromise 30 janvier 2015

Posted by Acturca in History / Histoire, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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The Daily Star (Lebanon) Friday, January 30, 2015, p. 7

Gareth Smyth *

A Turkish diplomat in Tehran once told me the ambassador’s residence had several centuries earlier been a dowry gift of a princess in a dynastic marriage linking the Ottomans and Safavids. The villa was one benefit of a long relationship between two neighbors stretching back long before the commercial discovery of oil or the Declaration of Independence of the colonies that would form the U.S.It is a relationship that has seen ups and downs. Many on each side have criticized, even insulted, the other. However, while Iran and Turkey have rarely been in a warm embrace they have usually solved problems through discussion and compromise.

Hence, while reports in Iranian media that the visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Tehran would be postponed from January to late February may reflect strains, these will not upturn bilateral relations nor prevent a slow increase in trade, albeit constrained by U.S. and sanctions against Iran.

Neither should we become too excited by colorful language in parts of Iranian media. In December, the conservative paper Jomhuri-ye Eslami denounced Turkey’s « cooperation with America » and « support for terrorists who, for nearly four years, have been ravaging the region, especially the nation of Syria. »

According to a commentary this month in Khorosan, a leading conservative daily, the Turks are guilty of « adventurism … especially in Syria, » which will become the « graveyard of the dreams » of Erdogan, whose Justice and Development party has « lost its credibility both inside and outside the country » with corruption « spread in all levels. »

Meanwhile, much of Turkish media has been condemning what the Yeni Safak newspaper called « Iran’s coup in Yemen, » referring to the capture of Sanaa by the Shiite Ansarullah, or Houthi, movement, which « plays the same role in Yemen for Iran as does Hezbollah in Lebanon. »

Heated stuff. But it is mild compared to the 16th century, as Ernest Tucker, a professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, reminds us in an essay, « Iran and the World in the Safavid Age, » edited by Willem Floor and Edmund Herzig. Before the battle of Chalderan in 1514, Sultan Selim wrote to Shah Ismail to stress that « the ancient obligation of extirpation, extermination and expulsion of evil innovation must be the aim of our exalted aspiration. » Such sectarian bitterness, founded in the Safavid conversion of Iran to Shiism, continued well into the 18th century.

At the same time, the treaty of Chalderan, following the battle, established what proved to be a coherent and lasting political framework. Despite renewed fighting between 1578 and 1590, Tucker writes, « successive peace agreements gradually became less polemical exhortation and more diplomatic attempts to establish correct relationships. »

This culminated in the 1639 Treaty of Zuhab, which formalized three crucial dimensions of the relationship: the delineation of the border, guarantees of protection for pilgrims and merchants, and stopping Shiite zealots from cursing the first three caliphs.

Zuhab endured. The Ottoman state was keen to extend its terms after the Safavid Empire fell to Afghan invaders in the 1720s, and the boundary agreement has basically lasted until today. The only serious dispute has been over the Shatt al-Arab, or Arvand Rud to the Iranians, at times during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Tucker draws a parallel between the Ottoman-Safavid treaties and contemporary treaties in Europe, including the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. Both helped establish a modern international system in which « the de facto acceptance of a formal, regular diplomatic relationship had the power to endure despite its uneasy existence against a background of de jure hostility. »

To this day, the two neighbors’ interactions are nuanced. Mainly Sunni Turkey and mainly Shiite Iran have different sympathies around the region and take opposing sides in the Syrian war. Tehran and Ankara have also backed armed Kurdish groups in each other’s territories.

Turkey is a member of NATO, the only one bordering Iran. It has implemented United Nation sanctions against Iran – for example in 2011 announcing two seizures of Iranian arms en route to Syria in contravention of a U.N. Security Council resolution banning Iranian arms exports. While Ankara has opposed U.S. sanctions, it has implemented them under protest, notably cutting Iranian oil imports from 200,000 barrels a day in 2011 to around 100,000-120,000 barrels a day at present.

But the bilateral relationship, as in Ottoman-Safavid times, melds economics and politics to each side’s advantage. There have been recent exchange visits – both Mahmoud Vaezi, president Hassan Rouhani’s special envoy and Iran’s communications minister, and Ali Larijani, the parliamentary speaker, were in Turkey this month. Both sides reiterated a goal set in 2010 of bilateral trade reaching $30 billion, even if this is unlikely under current sanctions, which cut trade from a peak of $22 billion in 2012 to $14.6 billion in 2013 (of which Iranian oil and gas exports accounted for $7.6 billion).

Turkey’s backing for Iran’s talks with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) has resulted in part from the likely benefit of a relaxation of sanctions, especially through expanding gas imports for domestic consumption and transit. In one small recent step, the two countries this month agreed to waive taxes on vehicles traveling between them, and to relax conditions and lower fuel prices for Turkish trucks travelling through Iran to and from Turkistan.

And, despite Iran and Turkey being on opposite sides in Syria, when Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Tehran in December, he joined with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in expressing opposition to « terrorism, » widely taken as a reference to ISIS.

The Ottomans and Safavids would no doubt recognize the motivation of their successors and would welcome their efforts. Today’s greater powers, and regional states, might well take note.

* Gareth Smyth has reported from the Middle East since 1992, and was chief Iran correspondent of the Financial Times in 2003-2007. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.

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