THE Istanbul Regional Conference last week aimed at improving regional security and cooperation prospects by bringing together representatives from those nations that comprise the ‘Heart of Asia’. During the session, participants seemed to beat as one, but beneath the surface the arteries continued to thicken.
Many believe Istanbul was a missed opportunity. Although the 14 participating nations reiterated their desire for enhanced counterterrorism, anti-narcotic and economic cooperation, no concrete measures were discussed. Significantly, the conference failed to obtain or debate a binding non-interference agreement in Afghanistan (Pakistan, Iran and Russia were particularly wary of such a deal). To succeed, regional cooperation initiatives have to be grounded in binding clauses and verification regimes. Without these such exercises are nothing more than opportunities for political rhetoric and photocalls.
On a positive note, the conference provided Pakistan and Afghanistan with an opportunity to start reinvigorating the strained bilateral relationship — the countries have agreed to jointly investigate the assassination of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani and signed an MoU with Turkey for the joint training of security forces.
These developments highlighted the fact that regional cooperation on Afghanistan is stymied by bi- and trilateral tensions in seemingly infinite permutations: US-Pakistan, Pakistan-Afghanistan, India-Pakistan, China-Russia, India-China, US-Iran, Tajikistan-Uzbekistan, only to name a few.
While the local media has unpacked many of these entanglements, worsening Turkey-Iran relations and their bearing on Afghanistan have been little considered. Tensions between the two countries have soared in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Writing in Frontline, Gonul Tol and Alex Vatanka explain the crux of the problem well: “The recent actions of the Turks have now effectively killed any Iranian hopes that Ankara will join the so-called rejectionist camp made up of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah aimed at confronting the West. Ankara’s recent policy positions signal clearly that it sees its basic security interests are anchored to the West.”
Among the Turkish actions that Tol and Vatanka refer to is Ankara’s decision to reject Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on protesters in recent months. In May, Turkey hosted a conference for members of the Syrian opposition to brainstorm ways in which to pressurise the Assad regime. Four months later, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan severed all ties with Damascus.
Iran was also displeased with Turkey’s decision to champion secularism as a guiding principle for the new constitutions of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Touring the newly liberated countries earlier this year, Erdogan spoke of a ‘democratic Islam’ in an oblique critique of Iran’s theocratic model. In turn, Tehran accused Ankara of promoting an ‘American Islam’ across the region.
The final blow came in mid-September when Turkey agreed to install US radars that form part of a Nato anti-missile defence shield within its borders. The shield is primarily intended to defend Israel from an Iranian missile attack. Strained Turkish-Iranian relations would primarily hamper Ankara’s ability to take on separatist Kurdish militants.
Since 1999, Turkey and Iran have cooperated through anti-insurgency operations and joint intelligence to address the threat posed by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Iranian offshoot, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan. After Turkey made its soil available for US radars, there were concerns in Ankara that Tehran would resume its earlier policy of supporting the Iraq-based PKK. But in late October the two countries jointly reaffirmed their commitment to defeat Kurdish militants. That leaves Afghanistan as an alternate arena for tensions to play out.
In broad brushstrokes, Iran and Turkey (and for that matter, all of Afghanistan’s neighbours and regional partners) want the same thing: a stable, well-governed Afghanistan free of a Taliban insurgency and Al Qaeda safe havens. But Iran wants this Afghanistan to emerge without the long-term presence of US troops in the region. Iran has repeatedly called for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan and, according to newspaper reports, has provided limited military support to the Taliban in order to disrupt the US mission there.
Iran has also focused the bulk of its reconstruction assistance in Herat —Afghanistan’s main industrial zone — in order to retain influence over the country’s economic development.
Given the cooperative nature of ties between Ankara and Washington, Iran and Turkey are bound to clash over the US role in bringing about and maintaining a stable Afghanistan. Since Tehran has already lost out to Ankara in capturing the imagination of countries affected by the Arab Spring, it will be reluctant to lose ground to Turkey in Afghanistan, especially given its own strategic interests in its volatile neighbour.
In the run-up to 2014, the Afghanistan issue could become a more important talking point in the context of Iran-Turkey relations because Iran has few other forums at which to air its views. For instance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which meets today in St Petersburg, has included Afghanistan as a ‘special invitee’, made Turkey a dialogue partner, and is considering extending full membership to India and Pakistan. After enlargement, the SCO will comprise the most comprehensive gathering of nations that have a stake in Afghanistan’s future. Iran, however, has been left out of the forum. No doubt, other bilateral dynamics (most of which include Pakistan) will have a far greater impact on Afghanistan’s future stability. But a review of Iran-Turkey relations is a good reminder that a regional solution to the Afghan conflict will not come easy: if there is so much discord at the fringe, how can there be effortless cohesion amongst those with the greatest interests in Afghanistan? Acknowledging this fact could help make upcoming conferences on Afghanistan more productive.
The writer is a freelance journalist.