Tehran is preparing for a high-profile diplomatic overture by Ankara, which will include a visit on Tuesday from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself (who will deprive his Iranian counterparts of the opportunity to experience his recently unveiled hologram form). The visit is a milestone in recent Iranian-Turkish relations as the two countries, long on opposing sides of regional conflicts, seek to bolster their trade and energy ties.
The prospect of sanctions being lifted has Iran, which is slowly beginning to emerge from its political and economic isolation under President Hassan Rowhani, eyeing its energy-hungry neighbor as a future trade partner. The Syrian conflict has long divided Tehran and Ankara and, though it appears to be on the agenda in this recent round of talks, it’s becoming fairly clear that the issue has taken a back seat to other concerns for both governments. With trade volume between the two countries expected to reach $30 billion in 2015 (up from their current $20 billion), there are some clear economic incentives to more robust ties. The tricky part, for Erdogan at least, might be the timing of this overture.
While the groundwork for this most recent diplomatic engagement has been laid for months (Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif have shuttled back and forth since November), Erdogan’s Tehran visit comes in the midst of the unrelenting outrage around a corruption scandal embroiling his AKP government — a scandal in which Iran plays a starring role. The revelation of illegal gold sales to Iranian traders, in circumvention of international sanctions, was responsible for bringing about the downfall of members of Turkey’s political elite, adding to the drama of one of Erdogan’s greatest political quagmires to date.
Paying a high-profile visit to Iran in the midst of all of this might seem like an inconveniently timed affirmation of his government’s shadowy ties to Tehran. But it is not uncharacteristic of the Turkish prime minister’s political style. Doubling down rather than backing off is Erdogan’s go-to strategy when faced with challenges or criticisms. So making a show of future Iranian ties– even with sanctions still in place — is only to be expected from the leader. In this case, the political charge around the visit is at least balanced by a pragmatic consideration of the significant economic benefits it could hold for Turkey.