The New Turkey/Iran/Russia connection

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

Since 2016 and the failed coup d’état attempt against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara has gradually shifted its foreign policy away from its “default” allies, namely the European Union and the United States, and closer to Moscow and Teheran. This shift is best explained by a realignment of the country’s foreign policy with its domestic interests. Indeed, as Steven David’s framework of omni-balancing suggests, foreign policy in “Third-World settings” is often conducted by taking into account domestic threats to the regime in place. This framework could help us understand why Turkey has turned to Iran and Russia from 2016 onward.

Erdogan’s regime was being destabilized by the Syrian Civil War, Kurdish separatism and the resurgence of nationalism as well as fierce opposition, when the failed coup occurred in 2016. The leader of the AKP thus took advantage of the coup to further legitimize an increasingly authoritarian rule aimed at reinforcing the regime’s control. This led to growing tensions with the European Union. Europeanization and the enlargement of the Union to include Turkey were expected to influence the country towards a more liberal model of democracy, but it has followed the opposite direction since Erdogan's accession to power. The European Commission explains that Turkey “has been backsliding in the areas of democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights”, resulting in the General Affairs Council’s decision to freeze accession negotiations since June 2018. Erdogan’s domestic policies thus have no incentive to change and will remain unchecked.

Turkey’s relationship with the United States has also worsened since 2016. Although Turkey, as part of NATO, is in a “default” alliance with the US, the two countries have clashed over a multitude of issues, as underlined by Lenore G. Martin [5]. Turkey blames the US for harboring Fetullah Gulen who is accused of fomenting the coup and currently lives in Pennsylvania. The Turkish government is also annoyed that the US is refusing to extradite Gulen to Ankara. Moreover, the GCC states that, “Washington and Ankara’s policies have clashed in Syria, Iran, Israel, Egypt, and Iraq”. By opposing Kurdish separatism, which he sees as the main threat to Turkish security, Erdogan's regime has in fact distanced itself from the United States which has been historically allied with the Kurds. And in doing so, Turkey has moved further away from US foreign policy positions, becoming even more closely allied with Iran and Russia”.

Historically, however, Turkey, which is situated exactly between the two powers, has not always had cordial relations with one or the other. Indeed, different disputes have marked the relations between Turkey and Russia, including the Russian fighter jet shootdown in November 2015. As there is also tension between Turkey and Iran due to disagreements over the question of Israel and Syria. Despite these misgivings, Ankara has always maintained deep economic ties with both nations, especially to maintain its energy supply. Since the cold-war period, Turkey’s energy consumption has rapidly increased and in 2017 it, “imported around 52% of its natural gas from Russia and 17% from Iran” [8]. Hence, economic interdependence in addition to geopolitical allegiances have led the Turkish government to develop stronger ties with Iran and Russia in order to further its own interests.

This article was written by Vincent Leroy. Contact him at

Special thanks to Professor Juergensmeyer for the insight.

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[1] Ajdin Đidić & Hasan Kösebalaban (2019): Turkey’s Rapprochement with Russia: Assertive Bandwagoning, The International Spectator, 54:3, 123-138, DOI: 10.1080/03932729.2019.1627070

[2] Vahid Yücesoy (2019): “The recent rapprochement between Iran and Turkey: is it durable or is it a relationship of convenience?”, Turkish Studies, DOI: 10.1080/14683849.2019.1657773

[3] Roubanis, Ilya. 2019. "The European Crisis and Turkey's Unpredictable Role in the Balkans." Insight Turkey 21 (2) (Spring): 75-89.


[5] Lenore G. Martin (2019) Analysing a Tumultuous Relationship: Turkey and the US in the Middle East, Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, 13:2, 262-277, DOI: 10.1080/25765949.2019.1605571

[6] Ibid.

[7] Đidić & Kösebalaban, 2019.

[8] Erşen, Emre, Turkey and the changing energy geopolitics of Eurasia, Energy policy 128, pp. 584-592, 05/01/2019.

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