Türkiye, Saudi Arabia, and Iran in the Axis of Regional Dynamics

Türkiye, Saudi Arabia, and Iran in the Axis of Regional Dynamics
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Senior Expert Bilgehan Alagöz

June has been a month in which the Middle East was intensely on the global agenda. In this regard, the announcement of US President Joe Biden that he will visit Saudi Arabia in July has been a significant development. Biden, who said that he would treat Saudi Arabia like a pariah during his election campaign in 2019, gave up his bossy attitude and made a diplomatic move toward Saudi Arabia, which paved the way for several discussions both in the USA and the world. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has become an important topic also for Turkish foreign policy. In this context, the visit of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to Türkiye on June 22, as a part of his regional tour, which also included Egypt and Jordan, drew much attention.

In terms of Türkiye-Saudi Arabia relations, the most critical turning point of recent times has been 2017. The primary reason behind this situation is the fact that Saudi Arabia started to establish an opposing policy against Türkiye’s Syrian policies despite the fact that it shared Türkiye’s position in the first years of the popular Syrian uprising and supported the opposition movement against the Ba'ath regime. In this respect, a number of changes on the administrative level in Saudi Arabia in June 2017 have been quite effective. By royal decree, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman replaced the former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and was declared the heir to the throne and appointed as Deputy Prime Minister. After this date, Saudi Arabia changed its attitude towards Syria, made attempts to keep Bashar Assad in power, and helped him to gain legitimacy while it has taken a stance against Türkiye’s military operations in Syria that Türkiye conducted for security reasons. The development which made the tension between the two countries visible was the Qatar crisis in June 2017, which first started as a problem between the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and then turned into a Türkiye-oriented issue. In this regard, it is imperative that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain sent a thirteen-item list of requests to Qatar, and one of these demands included the closure of Türkiye's military base in Qatar.

While 2017-2021 have been years when Türkiye and Saudi Arabia have had a tense relationship, Türkiye-Iran relations entered a stable phase in the same period with the effect of the Astana process, which was developed by the partnership between Türkiye, Russia, and Iran. It is mainly because of the fact that Turkish foreign policy prioritizes the fight against PKK (YPG-SDF) and Daesh elements located on the Iraq-Syria line, and therefore, Türkiye finds it necessary to focus on bilateral relations that will create an area of cooperation for its own security policy. In this period, the main priority of Saudi Arabia has been limiting the influence of Iran in the region. In this context, the maximum pressure policy of the USA towards Iran since 2018 has provided many advantages to Saudi Arabia against Iran. Thus, while the anti-Iranian policy has become the primary foreign policy of Saudi Arabia, Türkiye, which established a stable relationship with Iran for security reasons, became the target of Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s perception of the region had to change after the election of Joe Biden as the president of the USA in November 2020. Biden's declaration that he would start negotiations for a possible return to the Nuclear Deal and his anti-Saudi rhetoric prompted Saudi Arabia to revise its relations with the regional states where it has problems. At this point, at the 41st Summit of the GCC held in the city of al-Ula on January 5, 2021, the Gulf countries signed a declaration, which first put an end to the Qatar crisis and then started diplomatic initiatives to renew relations with Türkiye. In this context, it is possible to say that the most important focus of the Crown Prince's visit to Türkiye on June 22 was that he wanted to establish an area of cooperation in which Saudi Arabia shares its regional sensitivities in line with its own interests, against the attempts of the USA to revive the Nuclear Deal.

At this juncture, it is also important that a foreign minister came to Türkiye from Israel for the first time in 16 years on the evening of the Crown Prince's visit. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid paid an official visit to Ankara on June 23. The two countries, which have had severe problems since the 2010 Mavi Marmara crisis, have focused on repairing bilateral relations in the face of new developments in the region. The main motivation of Israel is to establish an anti-Iranian bloc. Israel perceives Iran's nuclear activities as a direct security threat and makes an intense diplomatic effort on the issue both in the USA and the regional countries. In this context, Türkiye and Saudi Arabia represent the key countries for Israel.

Considering these developments, a bill that came to the fore in the USA is quite remarkable. On June 9, US Senators Jacky Rosen (Democrat) and Joni Ernst (Republican) announced that they are drafting a nonpartisan bill to take the 2020 Abraham Accords to the next level. It has been announced that DEFEND (Deterring Enemy Forces and Enabling National Defenses Act) aims to establish an integrated air and missile defense system between the USA, Israel, and Arab states against Iran in the Middle East. It can be said that the focal point of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July will be the relevant bill. Because the involvement of Saudi Arabia in the process, as one of the most significant states of the Persian Gulf, is of great importance in order to create a powerful line against Iran.

At this point, it should be noted that the perspectives of both Saudi Arabia and Türkiye concerning the Iran policies of the USA and Israel are different. While the USA and Israel focus on Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state and consider this situation as the number one security threat, Saudi Arabia and Türkiye focus on Iran's military activities and relations with militias in the line, which is defined by Iran as the axis of resistance. Especially Türkiye’s priorities are to fight against PKK and Daesh elements on the Iraq and Syria line and the possible security problems that Iran will create on this line. In this regard, it is essential that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on June 1 that Türkiye is preparing for a cross-border operation in Syria and emphasized the cities of Tel Rifat and Manbij. Iran’s anti-Türkiye discourses have increased since this date. It is possible to say that Iran especially focuses on the Tel Rifat operation; hence Tel Rifat, which is near Aleppo, is also close to the cities of al-Zahraa and Nubl, which are controlled by Iran. Iran's discomfort with the possible operation of Türkiye was also reflected in the diplomatic mechanism, and the visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian to Ankara, which was previously announced to take place on June 6, was canceled. However, Iran, which is aware of the significance of the relations with Türkiye, reconsidered the issue, and Abdollahian decided to come to Türkiye on June 27. 

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, seems determined to use diplomacy in relations with Iran and intends to continue negotiations with Iran that started on April 2021 to focus on resolving the Yemeni crisis. In this context, the following statements of the Crown Prince about Iran in an interview given in March 2022 summarize the situation: “Iran and Saudi Arabia are neighbors. Neighbors forever. We cannot get rid of them, and they cannot get rid of us. So, it is better for both of us to work it out and to look for ways in which we can coexist.” As it can be understood from these statements, despite all the problems, it does not seem possible for Saudi Arabia to take part in a sharp anti-Iranian bloc desired by the USA and Israel.

The fact that both Türkiye and Saudi Arabia have a different perception of Iran than the USA and Israel does not mean that these two countries will have a common attitude towards Iran. Currently, there is a frequently changing system of alliances in the Middle East, and all countries follow an independent policy. In this regard, the priorities of Türkiye are quite clear. Any obstacle caused by a regional or global actor to cross-border operations as the continuation of Türkiye's fight against terrorism represents the red line of Türkiye. Therefore, this sensitivity will constitute the main dynamic of Türkiye's relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran in the upcoming period.