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America's NPR reported in 2010 that Turkey is vying with Iran to be the most influential regional power in Iraq and that Northern Iraq has become the 'staging ground' for Turkey's bid for economic dominance. Regional specialist Greg Gause went so far as to say that "the Turks have predominant influence of any foreign power, even rivaling the U.S, and they have done it through a clever and low-key strategy,". This is said to be in line with Turkey's aspirations to become an energy bridge between Europe and Asia.[1]

Turkey's Trade Ministry estimates that the trade volume between Turkey and Iraq exceeded $6 billion in 2010, up from only $940 million in 2003, boosting Iraq from Turkey's tenth largest trade partner to the fifth largest. As of 2011 there were over 117 Turkish companies working on energy, agriculture and industrial projects in Iraq. Energy is a key feature of bilateral relations between the two countries. In the third round of licensing in 2010, Turkey's state-owned TPAO was among the companies to sign deals for gas fields, and Turkish companies are also active in the Kurdish oil sector.[2]

However relations soured over the course of 2012, partly as a result of the expulsion and sentencing to death of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and Turkey's subsequent refusal to hand him over to Iraqi authorities when he took refuge in the country.[3] An analyst at the Carnegie Endowment commented that "Turkey increasingly is seen as nurturing the Sunnis", and the souring relations led to the mayor of Basra encouraging companies from other countries to compete against Turkish companies for contracts.[4]

Historical Relations

Following World War II Turkey was a key ally of the West in the Middle East in order to contain those countries seen as 'Soviet clients', including Iraq. But during the 1990s Iraq was Turkey's lead trading partner, with the Turkish port of Ceyhan receiving oil by pipelines from Iraq's northern fields. However UN sanctions on Iraq took their toll on Iraqi-Turkish trade relations.

Since the 2003 invasion and the deep structural changes it triggered in the Middle East, contemporary Iraq has been the subject of competing power plays between Saudi Arabia, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Turkey. Turkey meanwhile gained international acclaim for pursuing a 'zero problems with the neighbours policy', a policy nurturing positive ties with neighbouring countries.[5] However the crisis in neighbouring Syria from 2011 onwards, along with its closer relations between Ankara and Iraq's Sunnis and Kurds, raised doubts about the "zero problems" policy. Prime Minister al-Maliki went so far as to claim that Turkey was stirring up ethnic divisions in the country.[6]

Turkish position on Kurdish Issue

Turkey's attitude towards the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has shifted since 2005. Despite increasingly strong economic ties, bilateral engagement between Iraq and Turkey has been constrained in the past by Turkey's rejection of rising Kurdish autonomy and the presence of PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) bases in northern Iraq, according to Oxford University's Hasan Turunc.[7]

However Turkey dominates the economy of the KRG region. The KRG estimates that in 2011 trade between Kurdistan and Turkey totalled $8 billion[8] and Turkish imports account for an estimated 80% of food and clothes sold. Private Turkish companies have made significant investments in the region and Turkish energy companies such as Pet-Oil and Genel Energy have won bids to develop oil and gas fields in northern Iraq.[9] Iraq Oil Report reported in November 2012 that a new Turkish state oil and gas company was negotiating with the Kurdish authorities to take stakes in several exploration blocks.[10]

Turunc comments that Turkey attaches a great deal of importance to Iraq's stability and territorial integrity and sees those matters as crucial to its own security and stability. In particular the future status of ethnically mixed Kirkuk, home to some of Iraq's largest oil reserves, is of great concern to the Turks. According to his analysis Turkey's principal anxiety is that the oil riches of Kirkuk will only encourage the KRG to seek greater autonomy, which could spill over and spark unrest amid Turkey's own Kurdish population. In his words, 'energy, economy and infrastructure form the crux of Turkish involvement in Iraq.'[11]

According to the Economist in 2009, the US encouraged the two sides to rebuild relations and telephoned Turkish president Abdullah Gul to praise "the growing Turkish-Iraqi relationship", in the hope that friendship with Turkey would enable Iraq's Kurds to export their oil and gas and check Iran's influence in the region.[12] Genel Energy's Tony Hayward believes that by 2020 Kurdish gas exports could meet a fifth of Turkey's fuel import needs.[13] In April 2012 the KRG halted exports to Turkey following a dispute with Baghdad, however in the same year Kurdistan and Turkey held discussions over the construction of an export pipeline which would bypass the central government's control. In a politically controversial move, the Kurds also began to export crude by truck over the border to Turkey in July 2012, in defiance of Baghdad.[14]

Export Infrastructure

Turkey's dependence on energy imports, particularly oil and gas, has grown fast as a consequence of high economic growth. In 2011, it consumed about 700,000 barrels of oil a day (bpd) but produced only 50,000 bpd[15].

Turkey is also located geographically in close proximity to around 72% of the world's proven gas reserves and 73% of oil reserves.[16] According to Khaled Al-Sharikh of Tufts University, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) looks to become a regional energy transit point and to diversify the source of its oil and gas imports. According to his analysis, Turkey is a geographically pivotal though energy-poor nation surrounded by energy-rich neighbors, and hopes to increase its weight in the international community through pipeline projects. In light of this, Turkey is said to be eagerly searching for opportunities in Iraqi oil and gas.[17]

The vehicle for Iraqi oil exports to Turkey is the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, one of the country's most significant operational export links.[18] But outside of this network, the likeliest route for gas to be transported directly from Kurdistan would take Kurdish gas to Fish Khabur, close to the Turkish border, from where Turkey could build the infrastructure to take supplies to the domestic market.[19]

Iraqi gas is also of some importance to Turkey as a possible source of gas for the "Southern Corridor" pipeline project to supply gas to Europe.[20] The Petroleum Economist reported in September 2011 that Iraq was looking to export gas found in the blocks on offer in its fourth licensing round to Europe by pipeline through Turkey. Deputy Oil Minister Al-Shamma said that gas exports would only begin if sufficient gas supplies were found and that associated gas would not be exported by pipeline, as supplies are not as stable as "free gas". He also commented that Iraq did not need the Nabucco pipeline to deliver gas to Europe.[21]

Common Environmental Concerns

Iraq faces the threat of desertification at an average rate of 0.5% a year. This desertification is also expected to impact Turkey. For example, in Turkey's Konya basin around 80% of water depletion has occurred over the last decade and the basin faces the prospect of complete desertification by 2030.[22] The regional water crisis is thought to be influenced significantly by exploration activities in the oil sector.[23]

According to Muhammad Amin Fars, General-Director of Kurdistan’s Irrigation and Water department 696,000 hectares of Iraqi agricultural land are now facing drought because of Turkish dams.[24] There is also some disagreement over national allocation of water from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, with Iraq asking for 65% of the water potential of the Euphrates and 92% of the Tigris, and Turkey planning to use around 52% of the Euphrates and 14.1% of the Tigris. According to Turunc, 'few commentators believe that water alone can become the cause of war between Turkey and Iraq; nevertheless its destabilizing impact is apparent'.[25] Greg Muttit of campaign group Platform also highlights that greater regional diplomacy with neighbouring Turkey is needed regarding their construction of upstream dams, in order to make progress on the water crisis.[26]


  1. "Turkey Flexes Economic, Political Muscle In Iraq, NPR, 31 December 2010.
  2. Turunc, Hasan, "Turkey and Iraq", 2011.
  3. "Tariq al-Hashemi: Turkey 'will not hand over' Iraq VP, BBC, 11 September 2012.
  4. "A Newly Assertive Turkey Dominates Trade With Iraq, Wall Street Journal, 2 August 2012.
  5. "Turkey and Iraq, Academia, 2011.
  6. "Problems with the neighbours, Economist, 28 January 2012.
  7. "Turkey and Iraq, Academia, 2011.
  8. "Kurdistan eyes major role in Turkish gas market, Petroleum Economist, 13 December 2012.
  9. "Erasing the Frontier:Turkey’s Trade and Investment in Iraqi Kurdistan, Tufts Global Leadership, 2011.
  10. "Turkey preparing major Kurdistan oil entry, Iraq Oil Report, 21 May 2012.
  11. "Turkey and Iraq, Academia, 2011.
  12. "An unusual new friendship, Economist 19 February 2009.
  13. "Kurdistan eyes major role in Turkish gas market, Petroleum Economist, 13 December 2012.
  14. "Turkey’s oil diplomacy with Iraqi Kurds, Financial Times 30 July 2012.
  15. "Turkey - U.S. Energy Information Administration, retrieved January 9, 2013.
  16. "Turkey's Energy Strategy, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 2009.
  17. "Erasing the Frontier:Turkey’s Trade and Investment in Iraqi Kurdistan, Tufts Global Leadership, 2011.
  18. "Oil Export Routes - Iraq Looks for a Way Out, Petroleum Economist, 14 December 2010.
  19. "Kurdistan eyes major role in Turkish gas market, Petroleum Economist, 13 December 2012.
  20. "Northern Iraq looks to export gas via Turkey and Nabucco, Hurriyet Daily News, 5 July 2010.
  21. "Iraq Eyes EU Gas Exports Through Turkey, Petroleum Economist, 8 September 2011.
  22. "Turkey and Iraq, Academia, 2011.
  23. Iraq may suffer clean water crisis in 15-20 years”. Reuters, 21 September 2011.
  24. "water conflict threatens regional relations, Niqash, 5 May 2009.
  25. "Turkey and Iraq, Academia, 2011.
  26. Mission Accomplished for Big Oil?”. Huffington Post, 23 August 2012.