By Gonul Tol and Alex Vatanka
By all accounts, it’s been a tough year for Iran. The recent revelation of an alleged Iranian assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador in Washington comes on top of a year in which feuding between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has shaken internal cohesion, and turmoil in neighboring Syria has threatened to bring about the downfall of Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, one through which it supports both Hezbollah and Hamas.
Less noticed, perhaps, but equally important, has been the marked deterioration in relations with Iran’s other large partner in the region, Turkey. Not only have Arab revolutionaries and protestors seen right through Iran’s clumsy attempt to claim some credit for the Arab Spring, but Turkey has adroitly capitalized on the dramatic changes taking place in the Middle East to increase its influence and prestige among Arab publics, at the expense of its former partnership with Iran.
Of course, the closer and more coordinated relationship the two countries have enjoyed is a recent phenomenon, a result of Iran’s election of President Mohammed Khatami in 1997 and the rise to power in Turkey of an Islamist-rooted AKP party in 2002. Many analysts in the West, understandably concerned over the new alliance, mistakenly chalked up the growing ties to a shared religious bent.
For centuries preceding the 2002 election, however, Ottomans and Persians jockeyed for power and influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. That competition has now been kindled anew. In this regard, the Arab Spring has illustrated two basic realities: First, pragmatic political and economic interests spurred the acceleration in Turkish-Iranian relations over the past decade, not a shared vision of a religiously run state. Second, the eventual outcome of the current rivalry for influence will affect the security architecture of the Middle East for years to come. The recent actions of the Turks have now effectively killed any Iranian hopes that Ankara will join the so-called rejectionist camp made up of Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah aimed at confronting the West. Ankara’s recent policy positions signal clearly that its sees its basic security interests are anchored to the West.
Signs of intense Iranian-Turkish rivalry appeared even before the outset of the Arab Spring. For example, in May 2010, Iran reacted jealously when the Turkish dispatch of the aid flotilla to Gaza generated a groundswell of popular Arab support for Ankara. But it was the Turkish reaction this summer to the Syrian uprising that particularly upset Tehran. In mid-August, the Turkish government shifted its policy and strongly criticized the Assad regime for its violent crackdown. Ankara then began hosting meetings of the Syrian opposition, and in September Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he had cut off all dialogue with Damascus.
The Turkish move came despite repeated Iranian pleas for Ankara to maintain its support for the Syrian government, a strategic ally of Tehran. Iranian state media intensified their propaganda against Turkish leaders, calling them turncoats willing to allow Turkey to become a staging ground for a Western military intervention in Syria along the Libyan model.
Moreover, Turkey’s provocation of Iran went farther than simply criticizing the Assad regime. When Erdogan went on an “Arab Spring tour” to Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia in September, he urged his Arab hosts to adopt secularism in their new constitutions and argued for a “democratic Islam.” This emphasis on a secular path for Arab states clearly hit a raw nerve among the theocrats governing Iran, whose idea of democracy was holding a sham election in 2009 and who ardently believe in Velaayat-e Faghih, or rule by a religious leader.
The fact that Turkey’s ruling AKP was outmaneuvering the Shia regime in Tehran for influence among Arab publics led to Iranian charges that Turks were spearheading a campaign to bring “American Islam” to the region, implying that only Iran represented an indigenous revolutionary Islamist model.
To add insult to injury, Ankara agreed on September 15 to install U.S. radars on its soil within the framework of a NATO antimissile defense shield deployed mostly to defend against Iranian missiles. As Tehran knows well, the shield primarily helps defend Israel from an Iranian missile threat, thereby weakening one of Iran’s key military capabilities against its declared enemy.
Last week, General Yahya Safavi, a top military adviser to Khamenei, warned Turkey that it needs to reconsider its policy toward Syria, its participation in NATO’s antimissile shield, and its promotion of secularism. Safavi accused Turkey of “acting in line with the goals of America” and warned that such behavior would not be tolerated by Ankara’s neighbors in Iran, Syria, and Iraq.
The newly strained relationship between Iran and Turkey may soon face another complication due to Ankara’s increasing suspicion that Iran will begin supporting the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as it did in the 1990s. Since 1999, Turkey and Iran have cooperated in efforts to combat the PKK, signing an agreement that year to exchange intelligence information and coordinate anti-insurgency operations. The agreement also allowed Turkey to help Iran fight two Iranian dissident groups based in Iraq, the Mojahedin-e Khalgh (MKO) and, after 2004, the Party of Free Life for Kurdistan (PJAK).
That counterinsurgency cooperation hit a snag in August, however, when Iranian security forces reportedly captured a senior wanted PKK leader, Murat Karayilan, but had him in custody only briefly. The “escape” of Karayilan, despite intelligence information provided by Ankara to Tehran, led to Turkish suspicions that Iran deliberately let Karayilan go, possibly to use as a trump card against Ankara. Iran’s subsequent rejection in September of Turkish calls to conduct joint operations against the PKK in the Qandil Mountains deepened those suspicions.
In order to counterbalance possible Iranian support for the PKK, Turkey has moved toward closer ties with Iraq. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari visited Turkey this month and, in meetings with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and others, reportedly pledged to aid Turkey in defending its security.
The recent increase in PKK attacks against Turkey, and the lack of Syrian and Iranian support in combating the terrorist group, could in turn revive Turkey’s security-oriented foreign policy of the 1990s, which would further exacerbate strains with Damascus and Tehran.
Among the many repercussions of the Arab Spring must be counted the increasing divergence of Turkish and Iranian interests. While Turkey has skillfully adjusted to the new political realities in the region, Iran, despite its revolutionary rhetoric, stands to become more isolated, exposed as one of the more corrupt and autocratic regimes in a rapidly changing neighborhood. Ankara and Tehran are clearly promoting two different visions for the region, and their long-term influence in the Arab world will depend to a large extent on whose vision Arab countries ultimately accept.
Gonul Tol is the director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies. Alex Vatanka is a scholar at the Middle East Institute and senior fellow at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School.
Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.
This Commentary was first published as an op-ed in Frontline on October 30, 2011 and is reprinted with permission.