In an exclusive interview with Daily Sabah, an expert on Iran and academic, Bayram Sinkaya, asserted that Iran's integration with the world after its nuclear agreement with world powers will not weaken Turkey's influence in the region
Last week President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did not give an appointment to Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif because of a defamation campaign against Turkey by Iranian state media, considered the last straw by Ankara. Speaking to Daily Sabah, expert on Iran and academic Bayram Sinkaya said that there has been increasing tension between Turkey and Iran since the beginning of the Syrian conflict and that the kind of news that targets Turkey has been a part of Iranian media since then. Considering Iran's nuclear deal as a diplomatic success, Sinkaya said that Iran will not be part of the Western world just because of the agreement.
Stressing that Iran's disposition regarding regional peace and democracy will maintain mutual mistrust, Sinkaya added that he does not expect changes in Iranian policies in the short term.
How do you evaluate Iran's nuclear agreement?
It is a diplomatic success as it resolved an issue that has been ongoing for over 10 years that could have resulted in war due to the severe sanctions. While it is not possible to say that it is completely resolved, I do not think that this process will be subject to a turnabout. This multiphase agreement has not yet come into effect. It should come into force by early December. Therefore, there may be some complications during the various phases or even after it comes into effect. Nevertheless, it is still a success to solve this issue through diplomatic means.
Is there a possibility that this agreement may become nonfunctional similar to the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) between the U.S. and North Korea, as was suggested by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu?
I do not anticipate this kind of an outcome in the short to midterm, meaning approximately 10 years' time. Even if the agreement does not come into effect, Iran is still a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran, as its leaders also highlight, is not seeking a nuclear weapons program. Moreover, there is no evidence that indicates there is a nuclear weapons program; there are only some signs interpreted as such. We cannot be certain whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons or not, however Israel and the U.S. claim that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.
There are two aspects to this agreement that may prevent Iran from violating it. According to the NPT, nuclear weapons programs are not possible. Iran can only start a nuclear weapons program by abolishing the NPT, and it must give notice six months beforehand. Yet, doing this means that U.S.-Iran relations will further deteriorate and may have consequences in the international community. On the other hand, any issues caused by Iran will take it back to square one. I do not think that Iran can afford this. While the agreement has a 10-year span, NPT supplementary protocols will ensure tight control over Iran's nuclear activities both during the span of the agreement and after. This does not mean that Iran will be prevented from having a nuclear weapons program, however, as U.S. President Barack Obama has said, the conditions of this agreement will cause the detection of any nuclear weapon production one year in advance. Therefore, it will provide a one-year period for the international community to prevent it.
It is alleged that Iran has become a part of the West with this agreement. What is your comment?
Iran has not become a part of the West yet, and I do not think that it will in the future, either. While there is almost 15 years of tension due to the nuclear program, the deterioration in relations can be traced back to the revolution. Besides, there are disagreements on regional and international policies, and I do not think that has changed. We are observing a milder Iran under President Hassan Rouhani's administration, which aims to improve international relations, but due to divergences in issues such as Syria and human rights it is not possible to say that Iran is a part of the West. Iran's disposition regarding regional peace and democracy will cause the maintenance of the mutual mistrust. If the agreement is successfully implemented, we might see mutual trust established between the parties. This may prove to be important in a similar resolution to other conflicts. Iran and the West may become close in certain aspects, but Iran will never completely become a part of Western society.
Iran has already cooperated with the West regarding Afghanistan and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). In the near future, these cooperation points may increase and widen, yet this will not mean Iran is a part of Western society.
There are allegations that Turkey's regional influence will weaken after the Iran agreement. How do you evaluate these claims?
This can be analyzed in two aspects. First is the regional balance of power. There are four main powers in the region: Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. While Iran faced sanctions, the other three found more power. Iran's activity will have an impact on regional politics, but I do not think that it will weaken Turkey's hold on the region. Turkey has a different geopolitical importance when compared with Iran regarding economic, political and international relations. Secondly, it is not possible to say that the sanctions were successful, even if they isolated Iran. Today, in certain circles' words, Iran controls four Arab countries. This indicates that even before the agreement Iran possessed regional power.
Is there not a possibility of an increase in Iran's ideological and sectarian expansion after the agreement?
As I have said, Iran possessed certain regional power even before the agreement. With the lifting of sanctions, Iran may finance its supporters more easily, but this is not sustainable as it furthers polarization in the region. The more Iran's influence spreads, the more reactions it faces. There is a Saudi Arabia-led bloc against Iran in the region that is supported by the West. Moreover, the West expresses its discomfort regarding Iran's expansion and regional policies.
The agreement may cause a change in Iran's foreign policy or may reflect relieved tensions with the West in the region that will be beneficial for the countries in the region. On the other hand, Iran's involvement in regional conflicts is because of its strategic disposition, rather than sectarian. In Iran's opinion, the West has been trying to either reverse the revolution or isolate Iran since the Iranian Revolution. According to them, their involvement is due to their opposition to the U.S. and Zionism. If the tensions are relieved and Iran renounces its hostile disposition against the U.S., the reason behind their involvement will be resolved. As Iranian leaders indicate, Iran's close relations with Hezbollah are to protect themselves.
The agreement's implementation will change the security-focused foreign policy directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Even today we are observing the shift of power from Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who allegedly manages several countries, to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. As trust in diplomacy increases, we'll see a change in Iranian elites regarding foreign policy. Dialogue, the concept of interdependence and economic factors are becoming more prominent.
What may develop regarding the Syrian issue? Will Iran stop supporting President Bashar Assad?
There isn't that kind of development, as a change in foreign affairs has not been achieved yet. Iran can be considered as fragmented in this regard. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs together with Rouhani constitutes one faction while the Revolutionary Guards constitutes the other. Both sides try to influence Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who has the say on these matters. Whoever is able to convince Khamenei, realizes his policies. While the Revolutionary Guards adopt a security- and ideology-focused policy, Rouhani and Zarif are in favor of a more liberal, economy-focused policy. However, this does not mean that Rouhani and Zarif reject some values of the revolution. I do not expect the policies to significantly change in the meantime. On the other hand, the Syrian issue cannot only be determined by Iran. A meaningful development in this issue is only possible through an agreement between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey.
Regarding the recent negativities between Turkey and Iran, do you see any indication of an agreement with Iran?
The region is significantly polarized, and all who caused this polarization have played important roles in the current situation in Syria. For a resolution, all parties to the conflict should have the simultaneous will to resolve the conflict. At the moment, this will is nonexistent. While there are many positive diplomatic statements, no concrete steps have been taken. For these steps to be taken, Rouhani and Zarif should gain some power and the Syrian plan Zarif has been working on should be positively received by the countries in the region. If they come up with a plan that is received negatively by these countries, they will strengthen these countries' hands. This is a strategy game, and Iran does not want to give up on Assad, as he is an important ally. Furthermore, the neighboring countries' attitudes toward Iran are also important. It should not be forgotten that the administrative change in Iran did not ensure the agreement by itself. Obama and Rouhani had to simultaneously show the will for an agreement. Unilateral efforts cannot achieve anything. If all parties involved in the Syrian crisis come together as was done for the Iran agreement, a resolution would be possible. Yet, the increasing conflicts in the region prevent this resolution from happening in a short time.
As you know, allegations of Ankara supporting ISIS in the Iranian state media received a harsh response from the Turkish government, and it was claimed that because of this, Zarif was not given an appointment by Erdoğan. How do you evaluate Turkish-Iranian relations in this manner?
This kind of news that targets Turkey has been a part of Iranian media since the start of the Syrian conflict, so it is not new. As far as I can say, there isn't any change in this matter as it continues at a usual rate. On the other hand, an Iranian news agency could do the same and compile negative news on Iran from the Turkish media. Ultimately, there are certain circles in both countries that feel discomfort from improving Turkish-Iranian relations. Since the Iranian Revolution, tension between the two countries seems to happen through media. Even the most minor crises in diplomacy and economy are exaggerated by media and evolve into a war. Therefore, the term "war of media" usually defines the relationship between Turkey and Iran. However, I think that what happens in the media does not have a significant reflection in the relations.
We know that both Zarif and the Turkish government's agendas are busy. If Zarif had visited Turkey on Tuesday, two issues would have been discussed related to Rouhani's visit to Turkey in the next months, High Level Cooperation Council meeting preparations and the Syrian crisis. Iran has started to develop a new plan for the resolution of the Syrian crisis. After its completion, it should be delivered to the United Nations as Iran's proposal. Similarly, Russia is also working on a separate plan. Last week, the Russian deputyforeign minister in charge of Syria visited Tehran and held some meetings. The Russian government continues talks with the Syrian opposition, while the Saudi Arabian foreign minister has visited Moscow. In this situation, Zarif was expected to visit Turkey. Skipping Turkey, Zarif moved on to Lebanon and Syria. After Syria, he is expected to visit Pakistan and Moscow. I think that Iran is going to share Rouhani's Syrian plan with Turkey after it has matured.
How do you regard this plan coinciding with allegations that the Syrian opposition is gaining ground?
Iran has had a Syrian plan for a time. They proposed a four-stage plan in March 2014, but because they are a party in the Syrian conflict, this plan was not supported either by the opposition or the countries that support them. Therefore, these talks are not new. Iran is able to focus once again on regional issues, as they have agreed to the nuclear deal. Zarif's recent Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar visits indicate a return to regional politics. Zarif also has more comprehensive regional plans such as the establishment of a regional dialogue forum.
Cumhuriyet, a secular daily in Turkey, which has been advocating that Turkey is becoming like Iran, published an article by Zarif. How do you evaluate this?
It is a success that an Iranian foreign minister was able to publish an article in a newspaper known for spreading fear about Iran in Turkey, but regarding public diplomacy, it is a failure. Because Cumhuriyet is a newspaper with a limited audience, as it has circulation figures lower than 55,000 and is in continuous conflict with the government, Iran involuntarily became a party in the intense political struggle. I think it was a poor choice.
We observe that all of these negative developments cause Turkish people and institutions to question Iran's intentions. What is your comment on this subject?
As I have said, it is not possible to talk about a unified Iran regarding policies. This is also true for all governments around the world; governments and state institutions may have different approaches and preferences. After Rouhani was elected, Turkish-Iranian relations started to improve; the High Level Cooperation Agreement and Preferential Trade Agreement were signed. In this manner, it can be said that Turkish-Iranian relations experience both positive and negative developments. Therefore, it is hard to say that Iran is completely against Turkey. When we look at the statements of Iran's top ranking official, we can see that they are disappointed in Turkey. Every country has a different reasoning in these matters, but due to polarization in the region, every decision and action is interpreted as a move towards one axis or another. Therefore, these regional tensions affect bilateral relations negatively. If a mechanism for dialogue can be actualized, I think that we can overcome these negativities.
With the implementation of the agreement, what will increase between Turkey and Iran, cooperation or competition?
Both will increase. Due to the nature of modern international relations, it is not possible to talk about complete cooperation or competition. While cooperating in certain fields, you may be competing in another one. Both countries advocate resolution of regional issues and fighting against extremism, especially ISIS. On these issues, we will see increased cooperation. On the other hand, because Iran is an influential political actor in the region, we can talk about economic competition, as they have started to regard the Middle East as a market. This competition is tolerable, but it depends on whether regional tensions are relieved or escalated.
Erdoğan said that he was discomforted by the sectarian expansion of Iran during his visit to Tehran. How do you evaluate this concern?
This depends on regional tensions. As tensions escalate, Iran devotes its efforts to potential allies. However, this bond between Iran and Shiites who are a minority in the region, is perceived as a security issue by the countries in the region. Therefore, it makes it challenging to relieve tensions in the region. If power regarding Middle East policies shifts from Soleimani to Zarif, resolution will be relatively easy.
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