TEHRAN: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Iran on Wednesday in a sign of warming ties between the two neighbours who support rival camps in Syria but both strongly oppose last week’s Iraqi Kurdish vote for independence.
The two governments fear the secession of Iraq’s Kurds would stoke separatist sentiment among their own large Kurdish minorities and are eager to work together with the federal government in Baghdad to block it. Erdogan is due to meet both his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all matters of state.
He was preceded in Tehran by Turkish armed forces chief of staff General Hulusi Akar, who arrived on Sunday. Both countries have held military manoeuvres close to their borders with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region in recent days to ratchet up the pressure on Kurdish leaders.
Those exercises have also involved forces of the federal government in Baghdad, which has demanded the annulment of the September 25 vote, which returned a 92.7 percent majority for independence.
“Cooperation between Iran, Turkey and Iraq can create stability and security in the region and block moves for secession,” Iranian Defence Minister General Amir Hatami said as he held talks with Akar on Tuesday.
Baghdad imposed a ban on all international flights to Kurdish airports on Friday prompting an exodus of foreigners. Iran has ordered a halt to all trade in fuel products with Iraqi Kurdistan and has said it will allow Iraqi federal forces to deploy at its border crossings with the region.
Turkey has threatened to close its land border and halt the export of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, an economic lifeline. Erdogan vowed on Saturday that Iraqi Kurdistan “will pay a price” for the ‘unacceptable’ referendum.
Since 1984, Turkey has battled rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has rear bases in northern Iraq and which initially sought to create a breakaway state. Two Kurdish rebel groups are active in Iran – the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and the Party of Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK).
Iran and Turkey have been rivals for centuries but have recently sought to forge a pragmatic relationship, with the Islamic Republic strongly supporting Erdogan after last year’s failed coup. The two governments have taken opposing sides in the six-year civil war in Syria but relations have thawed this year with them both joining Russia as co-sponsors of peace talks which began in Kazakstan in January.
Those talks have led to the setting up of three safe zones and plans for a fourth, with Iran and Russia keeping the government and its allies on board and Turkey doing the same with the rebels. Iran and Turkey also both share sympathy with Qatar in a diplomatic crisis that erupted between the Gulf emirate and its neighbours in June.
Qatar, a longtime Turkish ally, hosted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for talks on Tuesday as the crisis pushes it closer to Tehran.
“We are on an upward and positive path in bilateral relations and regional cooperation between Iran and Turkey,” which is dictated by ‘reality’, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi told the ILNA news agency. Iran’s reformist Shargh newspaper said Erdogan’s visit was an “opportunity to establish the basis for a new regional order and new alliances.”
The two sides are also expected to discuss new economic projects in a bid to meet their goal of boosting bilateral trade to $30 billion in 2018 from $10 billion last year. The atmosphere for the talks is a far cry from Erdogan’s last visit to Tehran in January 2015 when a speech he gave just days before sparked demands from some Iranian lawmakers for it to be cancelled. The Turkish leader had accused Iran of seeking to “dominate the region” and demanded that it withdraw its troops from Iraq and Syria.