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Research Questions

  1. How are Turkish-Iranian relations likely to evolve in the coming decade?
  2. To what extent are Turkish-Iranian security interests convergent? To what extent are they divergent?
  3. What are the implications of the divergences for security in the Middle East and U.S. interests?

Abstract

Turkish-Iranian cooperation has visibly intensified in recent years, thanks in part to Turkish energy needs and Iran's vast oil and natural gas resources. However, Turkey and Iran tend to be rivals rather than close partners. While they may share certain economic and security interests, especially regarding the Kurdish issue, their interests are at odds in many areas across the Middle East. Turkey's support for the opposition in Syria, Iran's only true state ally in the Middle East, is one example. Iraq has also become a field of growing competition between Turkey and Iran. Iran's nuclear program has been a source of strain and divergence in U.S.-Turkish relations. However, the differences between the United States and Turkey regarding Iran's nuclear program are largely over tactics, not strategic goals. Turkey's main fear is that Iran's acquisition of nuclear arms could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. This, in turn, could increase pressure on the Turkish government to consider developing its own nuclear weapon capability. U.S. and Turkish interests have become more convergent since the onset of the Syrian crisis. However, while U.S. and Turkish interests in the Middle East closely overlap, they are not identical. Thus, the United States should not expect Turkey to follow its policy toward Iran unconditionally. Turkey has enforced United Nations sanctions against Iran but, given Ankara's close energy ties to Tehran, may be reluctant to undertake the harshest measures against Iran.

Key Findings

Turkey's Need for Iran's Oil and Natural Gas Resources Is an Important Driver of Turkish-Iranian Cooperation

  • Iran is the second-largest supplier of natural gas to Turkey, behind Russia. Iran is also an important source of crude oil.
  • Given its dependence on Iranian energy, especially natural gas, Turkey has a strong stake in preventing relations with Iran from deteriorating too badly.

The Degree of Cooperation Should Not Be Exaggerated

  • Turkey and Iran have historically been, and continue to be, rivals rather than close partners. Their interests are at odds in many areas across the Middle East. The two states have fundamentally different political identities and ideologies.
  • Turkey and Iran both have sought to exploit the emerging "new order" in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring to achieve their respective interests in the Middle East.
  • Among the areas straining relations between the two are Turkey's support for the Syrian opposition, growing competition over Iraq, and the Kurdish and Palestinian issues.

Iran's Nuclear Program Has Been a Source of Strain and Divergence in U.S.-Turkish Relations

  • The United States and Turkey differ on Iran's nuclear program largely over tactics, not strategic goals.
  • Turkey's main fear is that Iran's acquisition of nuclear arms could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East
  • Ankara may be hesitant to support some U.S. initiatives if they are seen to conflict with broader Turkish national interests vis-à-vis Iran.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Turkey and Iran in a Changing Middle East

  • Chapter Three

    Israel and the Palestinian Issue

  • Chapter Four

    Central Asia and the Caucasus

  • Chapter Five

    The Nuclear Issue

  • Chapter Six

    The Economic Dimension

  • Chapter Seven

    Prospects for the Future

The research described in this report was prepared for the National Intelligence Council. The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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