Al-monitor – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met March 1 in Islamabad on the sidelines of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) conference to diffuse recent tensions between their countries. Despite the photo op in the Pakistani capital, the two sides still hold opposing positions on a number of issues in the Middle East.
During the meeting, Rouhani said, “The Islamic Republic of Iran insists on the territorial integrity of countries in the region and is opposed to any kind of violation of territorial integrity, especially in Syria and Iraq.” His comment was indirectly aimed at Turkey, whose troops have crossed into both Syria and Iraq. Just before leaving for Islamabad, Erdogan said that Turkey does not plan to keep forces in Syria indefinitely and will leave at the end of military operations, which according to government officials are aimed at fighting the Islamic State and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Rouhani also addressed the war in Yemen, calling for a cease-fire and adding that talks between rival factions could resolve the issue there.
Despite recent comments by Turkish officials blaming Iran for turmoil in the region, Rouhani attempted to strike a promising note, remarking that the two countries can improve economic relations, particularly in energy, banking and transportation. According to Iranian news agencies, Erdogan also called for an expansion of economic ties between their two countries, saying that he is committed to seeing trade between them rise from its 2016 level of $8.79 billion to $30 billion.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also attempted to diffuse tensions generated by remarks he made in February accusing Iran of spreading sectarianism in the region. At the ECO conference March 1, Cavusoglu said, “We will never forget the night of the coup, when Mr. Zarif stayed up with us through the night and spoke with me four times, and we will always be grateful for this valuable attention.”
Cavusoglu’s original comments on fomenting sectarianism had elicited criticism from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who said to an Iranian newspaper Feb. 22 that the Turkish officials making such allegations must have “short memories,” having forgotten Iranian officials’ show of support on the night of the attempted putsch, speaking with Turkish leaders and trying to assist their government, which is not Shiite.
On Syria, Cavusoglu said of Iran and Turkey, “[We] share the opinion that a cease-fire in Syria is a necessity, and the Syrian crisis should be solved through a political and diplomatic path.” On the economic front, Cavusoglu said that Turkey can be a transit route for Iranian gas and oil destined for Europe.
Despite the promising messages exchanged by Iranian and Turkish leaders, their political interests in the region conflict in a number of countries. In Syria, Erdogan has sought to topple the Syrian government by supporting armed opposition groups, while Iran has spent considerable resources trying to keep the government of President Bashar al-Assad afloat. In Iraq, Turkey has expanded its ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government and has sent troops into Bashiqa, north of Mosul, to bolster local Sunni tribes. Iran on the other hand has lent its support to Iraq’s central government