The prospective of Iran-Turkey cooperation in Central Asia
Turkey and Iran have plenty of mutual interests in Central Asia. First of all, both Ankara and Tehran are enjoying good relations with the regional states and both of them are following their own political agenda without increasing tensions or intervening in other countries’ domestic issues. However, they are also neglecting the window of opportunities to cooperate and increase their political and economic gains.
The importance of Belt and Road Initiative is one of the key points of their recent rivalry. Both countries are seeking to host the route of BRI for more political and economic advantages.
Iran and Turkey are both among the active regional powers in Central Asia. Both countries have cultural and civilizational ties with the region and have taken similar positions in the field of political relations with the Central Asian Republics in the post-Soviet era. Tehran and Ankara also share a similar experience of geopolitical interdependence in accessing Central Asia (for Turkey) and Europe (for Iran). However, the relations have experienced deep cooperation as well as a deeper competition. In this regard, we have interviewed with Ahmet Furkan Özyakar about “the prospecive of Iran-Turkey cooperation in Central Asia.” Ahmet Furkan is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at the University of Exeter, the UK. He completed his MA in Iranian Studies at SOAS, University of London. His main research interests are Iran’s foreign policy and soft power as well as the Iran-Central Asia relations.
IESS: what are the main vectors of Turkey’s foreign policy in Central Asia? Ahmet Furkan: Turkey’s foreign policy towards Central Asia is multifaceted. In order to accomplish its political, economic and social goals, Turkey is placing emphasis on bilateral and multilateral relations with the regional states in parallel with Turkey’s foreign policy approach. Turkey was one of the first countries in the world that recognized the independence of the Central Asian states.
In early 1990s, this move was an important attempt to re-establish the relations with Turkic-speaking states of the region, (excluding Tajikistan) which also had nationalistic aspects. Considering the existing political vacuum in the region at that time, it was a legitimate discourse to approach these states. However, this discursive attempt undergirds Turkey’s political elites and remained as a mere discourse. Moreover, the domestic political problems in Turkey prevented the country from adopting a stable and dynamic foreign policy towards the Central Asian states at that time. Following the inauguration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s foreign policy experienced a swift transformation to enhance the country’s efficiency and visibility in the region. Following this transformation, Turkey gave a particular attention to supporting the political and economic development of those countries and that’s why the diplomatic relations with the Central Asian countries increased. This ongoing attention and consistent political moves will facilitate political, economic, commercial, military and cultural cooperation between Turkey and the Central Asian countries.
By implementing these diversified collaborations, Turkey aims to develop these countries’ nation-building process as well as their capability to cooperate with other countries. By pursuing these policies, Turkey endeavored to meet the expectations of the regional states. By virtue of these reciprocal relations, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are named as strategic partners of Turkey while also having economic and commercial cooperation with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
Another aspect of Turkey’s relations with the Central Asian countries is forming Turkey’s energy requirement and becoming an energy transfer hub between Caspian basin/Central Asia to Europe. The relations between Turkey and Central Asia are not only based on the politics issues. Turkey as an important practitioner of soft power uses Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) to contribute actively to the regional countries’ infrastructural and educational projects. Also, the academic cooperation between Turkey and Central Asian countries are significant. Akhmet Yassawi University in Kazakhstan as well as Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University in Kyrgyzstan are two prominent examples of this educational cooperation. Turkey also has envisaged scholarships for the Central Asian students to study in Turkey.
Although I could point out many important aspects of Turkey’s foreign policy towards Central Asia, I would like to stop here to keep it short. In sum, Turkey’s foreign policy vectors aim to help the Central Asian countries to have stable political systems and build democratic establishments. Further, Turkey is fully aware of the leverage of economic opportunities. That is why Turkey also seeks being a bridge between the Central Asian countries and Europe. In addition, Turkey believes in the domain of soft power to increase mutual understanding among the regional states; thereby Turkey will definitely continue to support the projects of TIKA and the increasing educational collaborations.
IESS: It is mainly considered that Turkic Council has a significant role in Turkey-Central Asia relations. But it seems that the relations are rather pragmatic. What do you think about the aspects of this relationship? Ahmet Furkan: I agree with you about the significant role of Turkic Council in developing the relations between Turkey and the Central Asia countries. The word ‘pragmatic’ is also multi-dimensional, and which perspective you are looking at is actually determining the status of pragmatism. By definition, all the established institutions seek pragmatic results to maximize their functionality in order to deal with the issues surrounding them. Considering the government’s experience regarding the Central Asian countries, the Turkic council would give the Central Asian countries a significant opportunity to integrate themselves both regionally and globally. Therefore, I think Turkic Council is a rather active and well-organized institute, which is providing a regional base for multilateral collaboration.
The aspects of this relationship are based on a win-win policy. Being a regional power, along with showing its political and economic capability as one of the G20 countries, are the key factors to understand why Turkey is paying attention the relations with Central Asian states. In addition, this is not the only international organization that the Central Asian countries are members of it. When we look at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it also aims to reinforce the security concerns and this is also another side of pragmatism. If I return to your main point, in order to enhance these ‘pragmatic’ relations between Turkey and the Central Asian countries in the frame of Turkic Council, each member country should pay attention to having better communication with other responsible organs of the member countries.
IESS: How does Turkey see Russia and China, as the region's dominant players in its influence over Central Asia? Ahmet Furkan: I think none of these countries in the international politics could underestimate or ignore the prominence of Russia and China. Although it is occasionally ignored, I think the US is also an important dominant power in the region. Although we are not living under the Cold War conditions, the intergovernmental relations are moving towards that point again. The trade war between the US and China has affected every part of the world, and each country is trying to support its own allies.
Therefore, Turkey is aware of the influence of these three countries over Central Asia. Nevertheless, Turkey’s relations seem much better than the regional countries in the Middle East. The existence of the US and the Turkey’s approach of respecting the political culture of the regional states would prevent Russia and China from taking up the reins. Notwithstanding, both China and Russia are using their geographical advantage and Turkey needs to pursue deliberate polices towards these two countries not to be hampered for cooperation with the regional states.
IESS: After the recent Karabakh conflict, the analysts evaluate a new enhanced role for Turkey in the South Caucasus. Do you agree with that? Can this role spread to Central Asia? How and Why? Ahmet Furkan: Yes, I totally agree with it. Throughout these years, the Karabakh conflict was definitely a matter of debate between the two states, and Turkey’s position towards this conflict was very significant from the day one. Therefore, Turkey supported its brother and allied country, Azerbaijan. The enhanced role of Turkey is also inevitable. Turkey’s achievement in the Karabakh conflict could also be used by Ankara as a political and economic leverage to cooperate with the Central Asian countries.
However, this issue is also open to misevaluation and provocation. What I would like to say here is that Turkey does not want to spread its military influence in Central Asia. Turkey respects countries’ territorial integrity and plays a mediator role to solve the disputes by employing diplomatic channels. On the other hand, if Turkey is needed or invited by the official elected government of Turkic states, I think a similar decision would be taken.
Finally, Turkey’s military technology has experienced significant progress in the recent years. But, Turkey is producing this technology for itself and for the usage of any conflict in the future, rather than testing its own military capacity. On the other hand, if this enhanced role (political and economic) spreads to Central Asia, Turkey could use it as a leverage to achieve economic and political targets—in particular building up an energy corridor (natural gas pipelines) which could be of concern Iran, as it would stand to lose some gains in influence it obtained throughout the years.
IESS: Iran and Turkey are usually considered as rivals in Central Asian trade and politics. Do you think there are spheres of mutual interests in Central Asia for Tehran and Ankara? How can they cooperate? Ahmet Furkan: I definitely think that Turkey and Iran have plenty of mutual interests in Central Asia. First of all, both Ankara and Tehran are enjoying good relations with the regional states and both of them are following their own political agenda without increasing tensions or intervening in other countries’ domestic issues. However, I think they are also neglecting the window of opportunities to cooperate and increase their political and economic gains.
The importance of Belt and Road Initiative is one of the key points of their recent rivalry. Both countries are seeking to host the route of BRI for more political and economic advantages. What I want to say is that Turkey and Iran should distribute the duties and work in a coordinated manner. At the same time, both Turkey and Iran should reshape the influence and importance of Economic Cooperation Organization in order to encourage it to integrate the region countries. Although the Economic Cooperation Organization’s efficiency is doubted, it is also a salient initiative, which needs to be given more importance.
Yet, this is a utopic expectation because both countries could not find the middle ground in the when the chips are down. Both countries need to increase the level of communication and effective use of diplomatic channels. Because, both Iran and Turkey share mutual interests not only in Central Asia but also in the Middle East, and they have common rivalries in the region. Also, the imposed sanctions against Iran and the course of events in the post-pandemic period needs to be evaluated. Most importantly, the presidential election in Iran in 2021 and the Biden administration’s new Iran policy will determine whether both countries will cooperate more or stay as rivals in the region.