By Edward Carney
On Thursday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani traveled to Istanbul to hold talks with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The previous day, Voice of America News declared that talks between the two leaders would be taking place at a “tense time,” given the announcement on Wednesday that US President Donald Trump would be withdrawing American troops from Syria. Despite previous indications that the White House had pivoted toward a strategy specifically aimed at obstructing the expansion of Iranian influence in and around Syria, Trump now insists that the only reason for a US troop presence during his administration was the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – a fight that he now considers to be largely concluded.
The “tension” that VOA News perceives in the meeting between Rouhani and Erdogan stems from questions regarding the expanded role that Turkey would assume in the absence of serious American influence, and whether that role would be more in line with American or Iranian interests. Bloomberg quoted one expert as saying that the US troop pullout could be regarded as a “green light” for Turkish attacks on Kurdish forces that were previously American-backed. The same expert notes that this perception could be strengthened by President Trump’s recent proposal for the sale of a Patriot missile defense system to the Turkish military.
On the other hand, Trump’s proposal arguably signifies confidence that Turkey will behave in a way that is not significantly at odds with US strategies in the region. Similar confidence presumably underlay Trump’s specific request for Turkey to begin playing a stronger role in the right against ISIL, which he acknowledged on Thursday was not yet at an end, in spite of the forthcoming withdrawal.
The international community can certainly expect a generally stronger role from Turkey, but it is by no means a foregone conclusion that that role will serve American interests instead of reflecting an expanded partnership between the Erdogan government and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indeed, Bloomberg declared in no uncertain terms on Thursday that the question of whether to deepen ties with NATO or with Iran constituted a “dilemma” for Ankara.
If Turkey ultimately decides to follow through on attacks against former US allies in northeastern Syria, the effort might prove beneficial to Iran, which has long been committed to the complete removal of all groups that represent persistent opposition to the government of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. This is especially true in light of the fact that Iran has issues with Kurdish separatists groups within its own borders, some of which have significant ties to armed groups in other Kurdish regions.
On the other hand, Tehran has developed working relationships with certain other Kurdish groups, and some recent reports indicate that this model is being emulated in Syria as ISIL shrinks and US support wanes. Some Kurdish groups have reportedly been seen fighting alongside Iran-backed entities instead of rebel coalitions in recent weeks.
In this sense, a Turkish attack on the Kurds could have either a positive of a negative impact on the most up-to-date Iranian goals for the region. Thus, the future of Iranian-Turkish relations may depend in large part on the extent to which the two countries are willing and able to coordinate their plans.
Many of the reports that emerged in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal announcement suggested that the Turkish and Iranian leadership are committed to a high degree of collaboration under the emerging circumstances, or at least that they wish to give the impression of forthcoming collaboration. The VOA News report underlined the notion that Thursday’s meeting between Rouhani and Erdogan could have the precise effect of extending the trend toward deterioration of relations between the US and Turkey.
And Rouhani himself seemed to push for that effect by coloring public commentary on the meeting with reference to Turkish help in opposing the supposed unilateralism of an American government whose “action against Iran” constitutes a “100-percent terrorist act.”
Al Jazeera referenced these quotations in the context of an article that credited both Rouhani and Erdogan with vowing to work closer with each other over the future of the Syrian crisis. If both governments follow through on that mutual promise, it may set the stage for their resolution of the potential conflicts surrounding Kurdish separatists and a Turkish incursion into the country’s northeast.
More than that, it may set the stage for more general Turkish support of Iranian positions, given that the two countries are supposedly pursuing an overall boost in bilateral relations.
The Iran Project boasted of the effect of Thursday’s meeting upon these relations and the surrounding anti-American rhetoric. In what was surely a veiled reference to the US and other Western “enemies,” Rouhani proclaimed that “no third country” could weaken the relationship between Iran and Turkey. Meanwhile, the two presidents reportedly agreed upon a goal of nearly tripling trade between their countries to 30 billion dollars per year. The central bank governors’ for each country evidently also met on Thursday to discuss facilitating this goal, and two cooperation agreements were supposedly signed between Tehran and Ankara.
Yet none of this discounts the fact that Turkey is torn between regional partners like Iran and Western allies affiliated with NATO. This situation presumably discouraged Erdogan from matching Rouhani’s rhetoric in discussing mutual cooperation and trade agreements. According to the Associated Press, the Turkish president did, however, use a joint news conference on Thursday as an opportunity to criticize US sanctions on Iran, asserting that they “put regional safety and stability into danger.”
It remains to be seen whether this comment is indicative of a broader opposition to American strategy in the region. But in the meantime, it does cast doubt upon President Trump’s apparent confidence regarding the role that Turkey will play vis-à-vis Iran. And this in turn amplifies the criticisms that quickly emerged from many of Trump’s traditional allies, alleging the withdrawal of American troops from Syria would ultimately be a victory for Iran.
Those traditional allies include members of the president’s own foreign policy team, but also Middle Eastern partners of the United States. While the former group has little recourse other than to petition Trump for another change of strategy, regional actors may continue to take action on their own in Syria and surrounding areas, perhaps even striving to compensate for the loss of American manpower.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced these specific intentions on Thursday, but also signaled that he expected American support for an anti-Iranian strategy, even if it no longer included US troops in Syria.
Reuters quoted Iranian Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon as echoing this sentiment in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio. “Of course the American decision is not good for us,” he said of the withdrawal announcement. “But we know that safeguarding Israel’s security is also an American interest in the region.”