Turkey and Iran: A close yet competitive relationship

Turkey's search efforts after a helicopter crash killed Iran's president Ebrahim Raisi last week shed light on cooperative yet sensitive relations

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) shakes hands with Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi at the end of their joint press conference in Ankara on January 24, 2024.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) shakes hands with Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi at the end of their joint press conference in Ankara on January 24, 2024.

Turkey and Iran: A close yet competitive relationship

The helicopter crash that killed Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and other state officials, and Turkey’s subsequent assistance in search efforts, sheds light on the close yet competitive relationship between the two countries.

Turkish media was awash with coverage about its role in finding the crashed helicopter, even more so than reporting on the incident itself and its implications. According to the Turkish press reports, the Turkish drone Akıncı A5, which was sent to search for the crash site upon Iran's request, located the downed helicopter and the whole operation lasted less than eight hours. Akıncı—flying at a very low altitude of 9,000 feet to take images in bad weather conditions—detected the first heat source. Based on that information, Iranian search and rescue teams were able to reach the helicopter's wreckage.

However, Iranian media reported a much different story. Its military said that although Turkey sent a UAV equipped with night vision and thermal cameras to the region, it could not accurately pinpoint the location of the helicopter crash due to the lack of ‘detection and control of points under the cloud’ equipment and returned to Turkey, and that the wreckage was found by Iranian UAVs on Monday morning.

Strategic competitors

Turkey and Iran, neighbours and regional heavyweights, are strategic competitors in several parts of the region—most prominently in Syria and Azerbaijan. While they align on the issue of Palestine and have been among the most vocal critics of Israel’s war on Gaza, their relationship is also plagued by sensitivities.

In January of this year, Raisi visited Ankara for the 8th Meeting of the Turkey-Iran High-Level Cooperation Council, where the two leaders signed ten new agreements in various fields. The Turkish-Iranian Business Council also met. The total trade volume between Turkey and Iran stood at $6bn in 2023, but they both aim to bring that number up to $30bn annually.

For its part, Turkey has not participated in anti-Iran sanctions, which has irked its allies in the West. In many ways, Turkey is a breathing space for Iran. In 2023, 2.5 million Iranian tourists travelled to Turkey.

As troublesome a neighbour as Iran may be, Turkey prioritises trade and economic relations over any political disagreements.

Energy source

Energy is also an important factor in Turkey-Iran relations. Iran is Turkey's second-largest natural gas provider. Turkey imports around 16%—worth around $3.3bn—of its natural gas from its neighbour. A 30-year natural gas agreement between the two countries, by which Iran is obliged to send 30 million cubic meters daily to Turkey, will expire in 2026.

In April, the Turkish Minister of Energy and Natural Resources was in Tehran and met with his counterpart. Talks for a new deal between Iran's National Gas Company and Turkey's BOTAŞ are underway. During Raisi's visit to Turkey, an agreement on "cooperation in electricity distribution network management" was signed.

The two countries also share a common fight against terrorism from Kurdish militant groups. Turkey faces a PKK/YPG insurgency while Iran is fighting the PJAK. Although the two insurgent groups have similar goals, Turkey and Iran have not maximised cooperation in this area.

Touting Turkey's role

In his weekly press conference after the Cabinet meeting on Monday, President Erdoğan dedicated a large chunk of his statement to the helicopter crash. He commented on Turkish-Iranian relations and praised the Turkish defence industry, highlighting the important role of Bayraktar Akıncı in search and rescue operations.

Erdoğan pointed out that Turkey imported 80% of its military armaments in 2002 but now produces most of its defence needs domestically. It has more than 3,500 companies in the defence industry with more than 80,000 personnel. This industry exported military equipment to 185 countries, raking in $1.2bn annually.

He then moved on to Turkey's relationship with Iran, calling its people "brothers" and stressing the multifaceted nature of cooperation between the countries. He praised Iran for its support for the Palestinian cause and the close dialogue they established within the framework of the Astana Process. Erdoğan also noted that Turkey has not participated in the unilateral sanctions imposed against Iran out of appreciation for their bilateral cooperation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pose for a photo prior to their talks at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran on 19 July 2022.

Erdoğan called Acting President Mohammad Mokhber and informed him of Turkey's solidarity during these difficult times, and Turkey observed a one-day national mourning for Iran's loss. Among the foreign dignitaries attending the funeral in Tehran for the victims of the crash were Turkey's Vice President Cevdet Yılmaz and Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan.

There are many question marks about the accident, such as: Why did the Iranians insist on pressing forward while flying in dense fog and outdated helicopters lacking modern technical equipment? Whether the crash was really an accident or something more nefarious is on everyone's mind but will likely remain a mystery.

While Raisi's death shocked Iranians, their leadership assured them that it would have no impact on the state's continuity. Elections to choose a new president will be held in 50 days, and appointments were swiftly made in the interim. While power struggles will likely unfold in the coming weeks, no change in the country's domestic or foreign politics is likely.

Meanwhile, Iran has to grapple with a growing opposition movement inside the country that was reignited by the killing of Mahsa Amini in 2022 and the subsequent crackdown on outraged protesters. These Iranians shed no tears for Raisi's death, as they blame him and the establishment for her murder and the ensuing crackdown and suffering.

Apart from its domestic turmoil, Iran is also distrusted and despised by many in the region who believe it is trying to bring regional states under its sphere of influence in countries like Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

As troublesome a neighbour as Iran may be, Turkey prioritises trade and economic relations over political disagreements. A stable Iran is in Turkey's interest as it wants to prevent any disruptions to its energy supplies and any influx of refugees.

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