Turkey and Iran, two of the biggest and most influential countries in the region, have a unique relationship with both countries sharing great potential for trade and tourism, in addition to their cultural, historical and linguistic ties. However, the two are now in a row due to conflicts of interest in the region. In the last half decade, Iran has attempted to expand its influence in the region, primarily in Iraq and Syria. Iran's support for terror groups like Hashd-i Shaabi and Hezbollah as well as its support for the Assad regime have caused tensions to flare between Iran and Turkey, since the latter has long been in favor of democratic government and secularism.
Underlining the differing approaches and potential for business cooperation, the Turkey-Iran Forum was held in the Turkish province of Van, which shares a border with Iran spanning some several hundred kilometers and serves as a gateway for trade. The forum was organized by the Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies (TASAM) and the Tehran-based Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) and was sponsored by Turkish Airlines (THY), the Van governorship, the East Anatolia Development Agency and the Iranian and Turkish Foreign Ministries. The two-day forum addressed an array of issues in six sessions, including border trade and logistics for improving tourism and the role of border cities, the role the media plays in potentially improving diplomatic relations, investment potential in the energy and infrastructural sectors, public diplomacy and bilateral economic relations. With the participation of more than 50 experts, academics, journalists, businessmen and officials, the forum bore witness to the fact that the two countries have the potential to improve relations, if the political matters are overcome. Yet, the signals from the Iranian side were not as friendly as that of their Turkish counterparts.
Süleyman Şensoy, head of TASAM, said in the opening speech that, "There is an inter-dependency between Iran and Turkey. A new partnership model has to be adopted. Bilateral relations, in terms of the economy, should not be harmed by the incumbent chaotic atmosphere of the region. As the turbulence deepens in the region, Turkey and Iran must take more initiative and create a synergy." Van Governor İbrahim Taşyapan said, "Van is a gateway for Iran to enter Turkey and a gateway for Turkey to enter Iran and Central Asia. We have to improve our relations to increase the trade budget." Mohsen Rouhısefat, head of IPIS, also said bilateral relations have to be preserved in the face of conflicts in the region and emphasized the two countries' historic relations. He also underlined that Iran needs Turkish goods while Turkey needs Iran's energy resources.
On the economic side, the two countries have increased the trade budget in recent years. When the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) took power in 2002, the trade budget was around $1 billion. Gradually increasing, the budget reached $5 billion in 2005 and $15 bililion in 2015. The forum's main theme focuses on budgetary increases to at least $30 billion over the next few years, assuming that technical problems are solved and Iranian border gates and roads are modernized. Officials said there were two big problems discouraging businessmen from potential investments in trade. Firstly, the trade agreements currently in effect are not as facilitative as they should be and include many restrictions. Secondly, as a result of the initial obstacle, smuggling and bribery are also blocking trade potential.
Turkish officials provided statistics claiming that 1.5 million Iranians visit Turkey every year, saying that these numbers could increase if the number of flights are increased and become more frequent. A particular statistic indicated that the month of March, which marks the celebration of Nawroz, brings as many as 100,000 Iranians to Turkey, most of whom spend their time in Van as the city is just a few hours' drive from Iran.
Despite the goodwill, economic relations must be improved and will only see positive shifts when the two countries reach a political compromise on certain key issues. Still, Iran's policies that destabilize the region also harm Turkey since the PKK terrorist organization, its Syrian offshoot the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Daesh benefit from the vacuum in the region while the sectarian policies in Iraq shake the fragilities of the country.