ANKARA: Iran’s president begins a landmark trip to Turkey on Monday (Tuesday in Manila) as the two countries try to build trade ties despite an often fraught competition for regional influence and deep differences over the Syrian war.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will meet his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, where the powerful neighbors are expected to discuss security concerns as well as trade opportunities.
The two sides have had a complex and often dysfunc–tional relationship, which has taken an especially bitter turn in recent years as a result of increasing competition between Sunni and Shia Muslim powers across the region.
This has become more pro–nounced following the onset of the Syrian civil war, in which the two have found themselves on opposite sides.
Iran, a Shia theocracy, is the chief backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Sunni-majority Turkey has moved from trying to encourage reform in Syria to overtly supporting the armed opposition.
The two also compete for influence in Iraq, Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Even on areas where they might be thought to cooperate—such as Kurdish separatism—they have often sought to undermine each other. Both Turkey and Iran face a threat from Kurdish rebels who wish to break away and form their own country. But instead of cooperating, the two governments have sponsored rebels in the others’ backyard over the years.
In 2012, Turkish media re–ported government claims that more than 100 Iranian agents were active in Turkey, working on behalf of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) – a Kurdish rebel group that fights for autonomy for Kurds.
“We have agreements as well as disagreements,” was the summa–tion of the Iranian embassy spokesman in Ankara last week.
Despite the tensions, the two sides have many reasons to work together.
Both are concerned about the rise of radical militancy around their borders, and most of all wish to maintain their close energy and trade ties that have been threatened by Western sanctions targeting Iran.
Rouhani will be flanked by a crowded delegation of ministers, with at least six cooperation deals due to be struck.
Iran and Turkey will also chair the first meeting of a high-level cooperation council, a mechanism Ankara has established with its neighbors to promote trade and regional integration.
On a visit to Tehran in January, Erdogan said the two countries were aiming to more than double trade to $30 billion (22 billion euros) by 2015.
Turkey is also heavily reliant on Iran for oil and gas, having few energy resources of its own. It has been a fierce opponent of Western sanctions that has severely curtailed its access to Iranian fuel in recent years.
Ankara has been accused of circumventing the sanctions by quietly trading gold for Iranian gas.