Code : 4002
Turkey takes fight to Iran over Iraqi south
Thursday 15 March 2012 03:30

Southern Iraq, especially oil-rich Basra province, is yet another battleground for Turkish-Iranian rivalry, which has mostly manifested itself in the form of a cutthroat race for trade deals and business contracts. With one major contrast in their approach, however. Iran fears that it has little chance of beating Turkish companies, which are by and large better equipped with superior technology, greater expertise, improved know-how and a reliable work ethic. Therefore, Tehran has been doing everything in its power to disrupt the “level playing field” from the south of Baghdad all the way to Basra with intense political activism riding on Persian-style scaremongering diplomacy heavily laced with Shiite ideology.

The frequent visits of governors, city council members and other politicians from the predominantly Shiite southern provinces to Iran at the invitation of their counterparts were carefully designed to create opportunities for Iranians to exert undue influence on Iraqis. In return, hundreds of thousands of Iranians make trips to the south of Iraq annually. Political calculation in Tehran is that relations shaped by ideological and sectarian motivations would serve the purpose of overcoming the lackluster performance of Iranian companies in Iraq. As an added benefit, Iran hopes to manipulate the schism in the south in order to stem the rising tide of Arab national identity and to constrain the strong feeling of self-reliance among Iraqis there. Turkey\'s response to that challenge has been a peace offering with an all-inclusive approach, shying away from sectarian divisions and trying to play the game according to the rules of international trade.

Despite unrelenting Iranian attempts, however, Turkey has been making significant inroads in southern Iraq in recent years. Turkish companies operating in the south, especially in Basra province, have reached over 70 so far, almost doubled compared to a year ago, providing employment for 8,000 Iraqis there. They have been active in the health, housing, education, construction, sanitation, infrastructure and power and oil industries. The launch of Turkish Airlines (THY) flights from İstanbul to Basra, four times a week now, in June 2011 also connected Turkey to the farthest point in Iraq from the Turkish border. It seems Turkey has taken the fight to Iran over the Iraqi south.

Iraqi officials recognize and appreciate the importance of the work carried out by Turkish companies in various fields. For example, a Turkish company assisted the local government in Basra in removing shipwrecks at the port of Umm Qasr, the country\'s only deep-water port, which is vital for Iraq\'s economic growth and an entry point for some 85 percent of the country\'s bulk food supply. This is just one area that Turks have a competitive advantage over Iranians, as the latter simply do not have the capacity to offer these services. Turkish company Tuzla Shipyard, a salvage company that is among few in the world with the experience, equipment and ability to perform a massive and complex project like clearing sunken ships from the Iraqi harbor, has cleared enough debris and wreckage so that six Iraqi ports were opened for business. Most of the ports\' shipping lanes were clogged because of ships sunk during the Iran-Iraq War in the \'80s and the first Gulf war against Saddam Hussein\'s regime in the early \'90s.

To hamper Turkish efforts and slow down improvements at harbor gates in Basra province, Iran raises decades-long claims over the Shatt al-Arab river and invokes border dispute issues surrounding smaller ports to hinder the dredging and wreck removal operations. The delay in clearing debris will eventually cost Iraqis, with higher insurance premiums for freight loads, expensive shipping charges and longer transit times. Iran is also reportedly causing problems with the development of oil and gas fields close to its border areas in the south. In other words, Iran has been trying to take the future development of Basra and other southern provinces hostage to its own national interests and has been doing everything it can to prevent the central government from realizing southern Iraq\'s full potential.

Turkish firms have also been carrying out clearing and improvement work in the shipping lanes at Shatt al-Arab, Khor Al-Zubair and Al-Faw. They are interested in submitting bids for the $340 million tender for building the breakwater for a modern new port at Al-Faw. Just last month, Iraq announced that it would invite bids for the initial work of building a $6 billion giant port called Grand Fao in the Gulf. This has been the dream of Iraqis for decades. Once it is built, the port will turn Iraq into a transportation corridor between the Middle East and Europe -- bypassing the Suez Canal -- by rebuilding a colonial-era railway linking the Gulf to Turkey. It will shorten the time for goods to reach Europe from 20 days to three or four. This would be another anchor tying Iraq to Turkey.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which controls major businesses in the Iranian economy, has been spearheading efforts to limit Turkish engagement in southern Iraq. Going after lucrative trade deals, the Revolutionary Guards see Turkish companies active in Iraq as a major threat to their economic interests. The IRGC\'s role is not only to collect intelligence in Iraq but also to thwart the activities of competitors to Iranian businesses. For that, the IRGC uses elite Quds Force operatives to scare investors away, sabotage the business dealings of foreign companies and support violent extremist groups that employ tactics like kidnapping and bombing. Turks are the prime targets of Quds Force operatives. The IRGC also controls the provocative content on the public broadcast in Iraq by Iran\'s propaganda arm Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, which is full of anti-Turkish messages.

That is why both the ruling elite in Basra province as well as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki\'s government are keen to foster ties with Ankara, hoping that Turkey can act as a counterbalance to Iranian encroachment. They see that close cooperation with Turkey will help improve Iraqis\' capacity to balance growing Iranian influence. Tehran\'s overtures with Shiite clerics in Iraq have already stoked fears of Iranian expansionism, recalling bitter memories of the Iraq-Iran War of the \'80s. Long-running economic, political and cultural grievances against Tehran have now resurfaced.

Even pro-Iranian officials in Baghdad and Basra do not want to be perceived as courting Tehran too much lest it invite Turkey\'s wrath, damaging Iraqi national interests and straining ties with the US and other Arab nations. Though Iraq exports its oil mainly through off-shore terminals in Basra province, some of it also flows through the Kirkuk-Yumurtalık pipeline that passes through Turkey. In 2009, the two countries agreed to extend the contract for another 15 years for the 70 million ton-capacity Yumurtalık pipeline. In addition to that, a substantial portion of Iraqi trade transits overland through Turkey. As an upstream country, Turkey also partially holds the key for the supply of water via the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, both of which supply almost all of Iraq\'s water and pass through Turkey and Syria.

Turkey, Iraq\'s second-largest trading partner, is definitely acting as an underdog challenging Iranian leadership in Iraq\'s overall trade. It already pushed Iran out of the way in the north of the country, particularly in Kurdistan. Despite the huge credits and subsidies Tehran gives to Iranian companies to slash their prices so that they gain the edge, Turkish companies are making headway in other parts of the country as well. The signing of an agreement last year for Turkey\'s Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO)-led consortium to develop the 4.6 trillion cubic feet Mansouriya gas field in eastern Iraq was certainly significant progress. Opening up a consulate in Basra in 2009, with more on the way for other provinces, and launching direct flights to many cities in Iraq were all well-calculated decisions taken by Ankara to dam Iranian influence in southern Iraq.