Mistrust Problem in Turkey – Iran Relations

Iran, with its 70 million-population, with its huge surface area (almost two times bigger than Turkey), and with its abundant energy resources, is one of the most crucial states of the Middle East region. At the same time, Iran has the second largest economy of Middle East and Muslim geography after Turkish economy. Besides, Iran is one of the neighbors of Turkey. When all these data are considered, it is natural to expect a serious economic co-operation or even economic integration between these two neighbors, Turkey and Iran. However, a thorny picture is confronted when the relations are considered.

Iran, together with China and Russia, is one of the countries that Turkey has given great external trade deficit. The annual deficit in Turkey – Iran external trade is over $ 5 billion. While gas import constitutes almost 75 % of Turkish – Iranian external trade, non-natural gas trade capacity between Turkey and Iran is just around $ 2 billion although Turkey with its industry and agriculture-stockbreeding sectors can sustain most of the Iranian needs. It is strange that there is a significant resistance against Turkish companies in Iranian bureaucracy.

The situation is even worse in direct investments than bilateral trade. Turkish investors have faced unbelievable drawbacks. Turkish investors cannot utilize from advantages of being a neighbor country and having common cultural-religious similarities, they even have faced drawbacks because of being Turk. When all the drawbacks were overcome and came to the last phase of adjudication, the process can suddenly be canceled. The TAV and the Turkcell are the clearest examples to understand the Iranian resistance against Turkish investors in Iran. A group of Turkish businessmen, who had visited USAK three weeks ago, complained about another aspect of doing business with Iran. They stated that Iranian businessmen recently seem very excited for co-operation with Turkish companies but almost all of the co-operation attempts ended with disappointments for Turkish side. After find out profession secrets of Turkish businessmen (know-how) and learned how production is made, Iranians force their Turkish partners go away from Iran and keep on business. The businessmen appraise this approach of Iranians as an “eastern opportunism” and explain how difficult to make sustainable co-operation with Iranians for a long period. It is obvious that closed-economy and economic sanctions, occurred after the revolution, alienate Iranians from competition and it seems it will take so long for them to learn new universal business rules. In other words, the only bar before external economic co-operation in Iran is not the political resistance to international co-operation but also cultural resistance.


Whoever says, it is obvious that there are some forces inside the Iranian state who don’t want more Turkish companies in Iran. These invisible men see Turkey as ‘spy of the USA and Israel’. They consider Turkey as possible trigger of a possible ‘counter revolution’ in Iran. Although the newly emerging active Turkish Middle East policies in post-1 March Memorandum (Tezkere) Period and the Iraq War, have soften these thoughts, for the radical Iranian revolutionists Turkey should still be perceived as a suspicious country.

Second reason is Turkey’s stand points are being completely opposite to revolutionary Iran in almost all fields. Turkey is the champion of different religious interpretations and way of lives in the Muslim world and with its open market and relatively liberal and pluralistic political structure Turkey has the power to influence Iranian masses. The Iranian people watch Turkish TV channelles everyday and about half a million Iranians visit Turkey every year. Ordinary Iranians are not happy with their life in Iran and wish to reach the Turkish way of life. Turkey has been emerging as a new role model for many Iranians. This is Turkey’s soft power on Iran. In other words, Turkish understanding is perceived as ‘antidote of Iranian understanding’ for some Iranians. Due to this, within the Iranian state, a resistance is occurred towards the relations with Turkey.

Another problem that hinders the improvement of the relations is the traditional – historical Iranian politics. This could be a serious problem even if Iran was a secular country. It is a historical fact that almost all Middle Eastern countries have been skeptical about Iran under any regime or leader. The mistrust towards Iran among Arabs, Turks and other Muslim nations of the greater Middle East has always been there. So as to remind, during the Ottoman era, Iran and Ottoman Empire couldn’t be allies, and couldn’t ensure any serious economic or political co-operation. At that time, Iranian – Vatican relations were much better than the Ottoman – Iranian relations. Although many Turkish researchers consider stable Iranian – Ottoman border as proof for Ottoman – Iranian friendship, the reason of nearly unchanged borders should be searched in balance of power instead of confidence between two nations. If the Ottoman Empire was so powerful, Iran would have extended inside the Anatolian territories. As a matter of fact that the Iranian forces time to time attempted to invade the Ottoman territories yet they could not advance more. The Ottomans on the other hand did not spread its territories inside Iran so much because its expansion field was Europe and the Mediterranean region. In brief, stability in the borders was not a natural result of strong relations but balance of power. The Ottomans had got various measures in Iraq and Anatolia against Iranian threat. For instance, the real reason why Iraqi Turkmens were settled like a sword from north to south of Iraq was the ‘Iranian danger’.

Actually, Iranian relations have not only been problematic with the Anatolian Turks but also with almost whole Muslim world. The relations were problematic before the 1979 Revolution and remained problematic after the so-called Islamic Revolution. In another word the change in Iranian foreign policy towards the Muslim countries remained similar to Shah’s ‘imperial policies’. For many Arab countries the first threat to Arab world is Iran. During the Cold War, the U.S. tried to unite the Arab world against the communist threat under her leadership and now she has utilized Iran threat as a mean. It means that Iran legitimize the US existence in the region, especially in the Gulf countries. When you spoke with Arab diplomats and other authorities, except those of Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah, you realize that none of the regional countries truly rely on Iran. The Gulf Arabs for example define Iran as one of the major threats because they think that Iran may attack to them and may intervene their domestic affairs. It is well known fact that Iranian State has been very keen on intervening the domestic issues of the other Muslim countries since 1979. That’s why the Arab countries of the Gulf called the Americans, British and even the French to balance the Iranian power in the region. Not only the Gulf Arabs but also Jordan and Egypt Arabs are also skeptical about Iran. One of the Arab diplomat told me that they receive very mixed signals from Tehran. “There is at least couple of states in Teheran” he added.

Iran not only ‘frightens’ the Arabs but also other Muslim countries like Pakistan. There are a lot of examples, but the most dramatic one experienced when the Pakistan earthquake happened. Iran made all possible efforts to stop Turkish charities and other aid convoys to Pakistan. This bitter memory has never been forgotten by both Turkey and Pakistan. Iran sees Pakistan as rival country and strangely prevent an economic integration between Turkey, Pakistan and Iran although all these three countries need more co-operation to overcome their economic and social problems.

Iran-Turkey relations are not an exception, Iranian mistrust problem exist with almost all Turkish states. Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and other Turk republics are skeptical about Iranian policies in the Central Asia and Caucasus. Azerbaijan in particular is certainly aware of Iranian support for Armenia. It is not secret that during the Armenian occupation on Azerbaijan lands, Russia and Iran was the first two countries that gave economic support to Armenia. Armenia has gained strength against Azerbaijan thanks to the Iranian aid in every field especially in energy. Tehran, time to time, tries to act as a mediator between Baku and Yerevan. This is strange because Iran defines itself as an Islamic state and Azerbaijani people are Muslim. Iran and Azerbaijan not only share the same religion but also the same sect, Shia. In addition more than 35 percent of Iranian population is Azerbaijani. However Iran prefers Christian Armenia instead of Muslim and Shia Azerbaijan. It is clear that Iranian foreign policy in the region is not religious.

Another thorny issue between Iran and Azerbaijan is the Caspian Sea. If Turkey and the U.S. did not give political and military support to Baku, it was obvious how difficult situation Azerbaijan might face the Caspian Sea.

Similarly the other Turkish Republics of the Central Asia were disturbed by the Iranian ‘regime exporters’ and missionaries during the 1990s and 2000s. Iranian regime has always been perceived as source of threat by the Turkic societies. Turkish Islam and Iranian Islam have never been the same interpretation of the religion and the gap in religious life reflected on political issues.

Another problem is the PKK terrorism. From Turkish point of view, Iran’s support to PKK terrorist organization is still in the memories. The intelligence reports clearly show that Teheran helped or ignored the PKK in the 1980s and 1990s. It is claimed that the PKK bases and other infrastructure around the Kandil Mountain was constructed by the Iranians. Iran generally turned a blind eye on terror and the PKK terrorists freely used Turkey-Iran borders to attack Turkish forces during the 1990s. Today Iran has the same trouble and has had to co-operate with Turkey. The Iraq War shifted the balance of power in the region, and the PKK terrorists now target Iran too. The PKK has recently killed more than 100 Iranian soldiers and police. The Kurdish problem in Iraq and other Iraqi problems also threaten Iran too and Iran searches Turkey’s friendship in Iraq and the PKK problem. However, it is really difficult for the Turks to fully trust Iran in strategic issues. The past experiences and the mixed signals from Teheran also do not help the Turks to rely on Iran.




As discussed above, Iran has awkward relations with most of the Muslim countries. However Iran has quite good relations with Russia and Armenia, the two Christian countries in the region. Besides, these two countries have serious problems with the Muslim countries. Armenia has occupied almost one over five of its neighbor Azerbaijan’s land; Russia caused serious humanity tragedy in Chechnya. In other words, it is really difficult not to remember Iran who had co-operated with Vatican against Ottoman.

With these data, it can be said that Iran is one of the significant obstacle for Turkey who wants to sustain economic integration, trade and political co-operation in the Middle East. Some Iranians think that Turkey has a secret (filthy) agenda. These Iranian people deep inside Iranian State are anxious about Turkey’s digging up the country with trade. This point of view exists in Iran towards not only Turkey but also other regional countries. The skepticism inside Iran however may create skepticism in Turkey and other regional countries. Thus the imagined threats may become real threats. That’s why Iranian skepticism and mistrust about the region is not only wrong but also dangerous.


The natural gas cuts are another example of Iran’s wrong point of view regarding Turkey and regional trade. As it is known, in order to decrease its dependency on Russia and to increase its trade with its neighbor Iran, Turkey decided to get Iranian natural gas. In this purpose, huge investments were made to build hundreds of kilometers pipelines between these two countries. When Turkey first brought this pipeline project into the agenda, it had encountered serious political costs both inside and outside. While, from inside it is said that to co-operate with an Islamist country like Iran is against the main elements of Turkish Republic’s founding principle secularism; from outside, the U.S. clarified that she is against all kind of co-operations with Iran. However, Ankara accomplished all these difficulties and built the Iranian gas pipeline. Even, in the following years, it sought for other co-operations in natural gas fields with Tehran. While in a period the world run away from Iran and treat it as an ‘unwanted country’, Iran arbitrarily began to cut gas to Turkey, even in the middle of a cold winter. Apart from the cuts, the quality of Iranian gas has been another problem. Iran could not serve as it promised till now. All these technical problems and immediate cuts caused great cost in Turkish economy. Two winters ago for instance, the industrial areas thanks to Iranian gas cut shut down their productions because of gas shortage. This year serious problems have occurred in electricity production again due to Iranian gas cuts.

When it cuts gas, Iran sees no need to make a detailed explanation at the right time. No explanation, no apology. Iranian engineers close the valve of gas if Iran wishes or opens it if it does not wish so. When reactions toughen from Turkey, Iran finds some unacceptable excuses. This year, Iranian justifications are the same again:

“Winter is so cold this year. It doesn’t enough for us, how we will give you?”

In fact, in Turkey some people go forward by acknowledging Iran is right. They said: “How can a country sell its gas to outside while it doesn’t enough for its citizens?”

Certainly a country must sell its gas to other countries under any circumstances if it signed written gas export agreements. If a country signed an agreement, undertake an international obligation, the priority is its external obligations. It has to keep its words what ever will happen. Otherwise, no one can make trade and political co-operation with it. It was not the first time that Iran had cold winter. It is also not a secret how much its gas production would be. At that point, Iran that signed an agreement with another country, should obey these obligations. At least it should share its difficulty with Turkey and ask Turkey’s help to increase production and solve the technical problems in gas production. At least Iran owns an apology to Turkish people.

Another justification of Iran is the sudden cut in Turkmen gas that Iran imports. Turkmenistan has made efforts to persuade Iran for higer gas prices, and Tehran has resisted the demand. Turkmens saw the cold weather as opportunity to ‘persuade’ Iranians by cutting gas. At this point we should also note that Iran has not been constructive in direct import of Turkmen gas from Turkmenistan through Iranian territories. Iranians as a matter of fact that buys Turkmen gas and sells it to Turkey at higher prices. And when the Turkmens cut the gas, they cannot sell Turkmen gas to Turkey and their gas production is not enough for a big export to Turkey. However it should be noted that Turkmen gas is not Turkey’s business. Turkey has no agreement with Turkmenistan but Iran.




In brief, although Iran is surrounded by the U.S. forces and threatened almost every day by the Washington, it fails to gain the hearts and minds of the Middle East peoples as well. Even, Iran doesn’t carry out its obligations towards Turkish market where it earned billion dollars. It is unfortunate that Iran doesn’t act as a consistent partner.

If Turkey and Iran can overcome the barriers before economic co-operation a deeper economic integration in Turkey-Iran-Central Asia corridor and Turkey-Iran-Pakistan line would be inevitable.

Lastly, it can be said that the most crucial obstacle for Iran is Iran itself. Meaningless and contradictory messages are coming from Iran. At this moment there is at least more than one Iran, and this kind of Iran frightens regional countries as much as the U.S. does.

February 2008

By Sedat Laciner

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