President Rouhani's visit to Ankara this week comes at a time of important developments in Turkish-Iranian bilateral relations and regional issues. Turkey and Iran share a number of political, economic and security interests. These include, among others, Iran's nuclear program, the Syrian crisis, border security, economic ties and lowering tensions in Iraq and other places in the region. Needless to say, both countries stand to benefit from greater cooperation.
Representing Iran's new face, President Rouhani and his team have promised a new outlook on regional and global issues. Instead of a confrontational posturing, they have stated their readiness to engage with Iran's neighbors and the larger world. In Rouhani's words, "...in terms of foreign policy, my government is discarding extreme approaches. We seek effective and constructive diplomatic relations and a focus on mutual confidence- building with our neighbors and other regional and international actors."
Even though Iran is a prominent member of the non-aligned movement, Iranian policy makers acknowledge the importance of interdependence, multilateralism and regional alliances. They have formulated their new foreign policy as "prudent moderation."
Javad Zarif, Iran's Foreign Minister, defines it as "an approach based on realism, self-confidence, realistic idealism, and constructive engagement." Meant to be applied both at home and abroad, this new outlook "aims to move Iran away from confrontation and toward dialogue, constructive interaction, and understanding, all with an eye to safeguarding national security, elevating the stature of Iran and achieving long-term comprehensive development."
This is a welcome approach and should be reciprocated by regional and international actors. Engagement rather than confrontation should be a guiding principle in dealing with Iran. In return, Tehran needs to be clear and constructive on regional issues. It starts with two key issues: nuclear talks and the Syrian crisis.
Significant progress has been made in the nuclear negotiations. We hope they will be concluded before the end of this year. But the Iranian position has changed little or none at all in Syria and in regard to Sunni-Shiite tensions.
A main problem between Iran and the world, it should be noted, has been an absence of trust and confidence. Turkey's efforts to facilitate talks between Iran and the 5+1 over the last few years have aimed at creating confidence-building measures and nourishing an environment of trust. While some criticized Turkey for engaging Iran, now we see the Western capitals trying to do the same thing. The recent visit by the Amir of Kuwait to Tehran is a modest yet important attempt to improve relations between Iran and the Gulf.
Rouhani is aware of this problem of trust: "While we may not be able to forget the mistrust and suspicion that have haunted Iranians' thinking about U.S. governments for the last 60 years, now we must focus on the present and look to the future."
Against decades-long policies of containment and demonization, Iranian policy makers seek to make full use of Iran's multifaceted identity and geographic location. The Iranian desire to be a legitimate, respected and influential regional power is well taken but faces challenges at the regional and global level. Iran wants to position itself as a regional power center. Its rivals see it as a spoiler. Its enemies present it as evil.
Given this hard geo-political environment, "prudent moderation," as defined by Zarif, can provide positive impetus for ameliorating Iran's relations with the world. President Rouhani's messages since he took office have inspired fresh hope for Iran's new geo-political outlook. Iran's strategic goals can be aligned with the socio-political and economic interests of the countries in the region. A constructive engagement with the outside world can help Iran overcome its economic woes, high unemployment and political isolation.
But as Bulent Aras notes, "Rouhani's recent rhetoric, however positive, falls far short of the expectations that his diplomacy has raised since his "U.N. address last September."
In this regard, Iran's support for the Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime remains a highly divisive issue between Iran and the rest of the world. One can understand the reasons for Tehran's traditional support: Syria under the Assad family has been Iran's only state ally in the Arab world. It has provided access to Lebanese politics. It has enabled Iran to use the Palestinian issue as leverage in the region.
But it is hard to understand how Iran justifies its support today for the Baathist regime in Damascus that has killed tens of thousands of people, turned millions of people into refuges and destroyed Syria.
Iran's Shiite geo-politics already raises question marks about its strategic goals and intentions in the Muslim world. Its support for the Assad regime creates further barriers.
Keeping Assad in Damascus at the expense of losing Syrian people and antagonizing the larger Arab and Muslim world does not bode well for "prudent moderation."
Turkey and Iran have been neighbors for centuries. Their borders have not changed since 1639. Both have gone through processes of modernization in their own way. With their long-standing cultural ties and comprehensive political and economic relations, they have much to contribute to regional development, peace and stability. No effort should be spared to improve bilateral relations and regional cooperation.
About the author
Presidential spokesperson for the Republic of Turkey