Turkey and Iran are two of the Middle East’s oldest and most powerful states. Both aspire to play a greater role in a new regional order. Major geopolitical developments in the Middle East – the rise of Kurdish nationalism, the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, the Israeli-Hezbollah war of 2006, and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-2009 – have aligned Turkish and Iranian interests during the post-Cold War era.
Nonetheless, as Ankara and Tehran seek to extend their respective influence throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, their interests and regional agendas have inevitably clashed, as evidenced by their conflicting positions on the turmoil in Syria. But although divergent interests in the Syrian conflict pull Turkey and Iran in opposite directions, their mutual interests in maintaining cordial relations will likely prevent the Syrian issue from precipitating a major split.
Ups and Downs
Ideological tensions and mutual accusations of state-sponsored terrorism led to hostile relations between Iran and Turkey in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution, although Turkey was an important trade partner of an isolated Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Following the first Gulf War in 1991, a mutual concern over the possibility of an independent Kurdish state forming in Iraqi Kurdistan led Ankara and Tehran to form increasingly cooperative ties. Both states took collaborative measures to maintain Iraq’s territorial integrity and combat militant Kurdish groups. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002, the Islamic Republic was quick to welcome an Islamist party in Ankara that prioritized closer ties with Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbors.
For the last decade, Turkey and Iran have enjoyed increasingly cordial relations. Turkey’s interest in finding a diplomatic solution to the standoff between Iran and Western governments over its alleged nuclear ambitions, in addition to their mutual opposition to Washington’s one-sided position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and security dilemmas regarding the spillover of violence from Iraq throughout the region, has fostered closer ties. However, opposing stakes in Syria have led to a recent exchange of heated rhetoric.
Sami Moubayed writes that:
Ali Akbar, senior advisor to Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei … said that Turkey’s model of “secular Islam” was actually a “version of Western liberal democracy that is unacceptable for countries going through an Islamic awakening.” In response, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said: “I am addressing the Islamic Republic of Iran: I do not know if you are worthy of being called Islamic; have you said a single thing about what is happening in Syria?”
Turkey and Iran’s conflict of interest in Syria must be seen within the context of the two states’ regional ambitions and security dilemmas.
Role of Syria in the Struggle for the Arab World
The alliance that Hafez al-Assad and the Ayatollah Khomeini formed in 1979, frequently labeled a “marriage of convenience,” has greatly influenced the balance of power in the Middle East. For over 30 years, Syrian and Iranian foreign policies have depended on this alliance to provide strategic depth during times of isolation, contain a mutual threat from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and develop a Shi’a axis, stretching from Tehran to southern Lebanon, which resists U.S./Israeli hegemony. Hezbollah’s strength vis-à-vis Israel, which was demonstrated in May 2000 and July 2006, is an outcome of the Syrian-Iranian alliance. Tehran has invested in Hezbollah to gain respect and legitimacy in Arab circles and deter Israel from launching a military strike on Iran. Damascus’ support for Hezbollah has been useful for pressuring Israel into negotiating for a peace settlement that includes a return of the Golan Heights to Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s ouster would likely bring Syrian Sunnis (who constitute 74 percent of Syria’s population) to power in Damascus and end Alawite rule.
Given Iran and Hezbollah’s unpopularity among many Sunni Syrians, the viability of this “marriage of convenience” in a post-Assad era is extremely weak. Iran sees the survival of the Islamic Republic’s closest Arab ally as a vital national interest. The decision to send Iran’s military advisors into Syria to help the regime quell opposition forces indicates the value that Tehran places on the Syrian regime’s survival.
In contrast to Iran, which has much to lose with Assad’s ouster, Turkey has much to gain. Following years of hostility that almost brought the neighbors to all-out war in October 1998, Turkey’s relations with the Assad regime improved as the AKP’s “zero problems” foreign policy prioritized rapprochement with Syria. Despite more than a decade of political alignment and expanded commercial ties, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended relations with Assad and demanded that he step down from power in November 2011, comparing his former Arab friend to Hitler, Mussolini, and Gaddafi. Turkey abandoned Assad partly due to Ankara’s view of the uprising in Syria as an opportunity to reverse Iranian inroads throughout the Levant and establish Turkey as the region’s leader.
A recent poll, conducted by the Brookings Institution and Zogby International in October 2011, confirms that Erdogan is the most popular world leader within Arab circles and that the AKP’s form of democratic and moderate Islamism is the political system most desired by Egyptians. If a pro-Turkish and anti-Iranian government forms in Damascus, Turkey’s position of power in the Arab world vis-à-vis Iran would only increase. The extent to which Ankara is invested in Assad’s demise is evident by the Turkish government’s decision to host the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army. The party with the most influence within the Istanbul-based umbrella of Syrian opposition forces is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has declared support for Turkey and the AKP’s brand of Sunni Islamism. Mohammed Faruk Tayfur, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s deputy secretary, defined his vision for Syria by comparing political Islam in Turkey and Iran. “Islamic culturally and secular politically, [Turkey] is the model for the Islamic movement,” he proclaimed. “The Iranian [model], on the other hand, is the worst.”
Turkey’s decision to host a NATO anti-missile system has been interpreted to demonstrate Ankara’s willingness to take more aggressive measures against Iran. However, Turkey made this decision at the NATO summit in Lisbon in November 2010, several months before the uprising began in Syria. At the same summit, Turkey demanded that Iran not be mentioned as a threat. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also stated that Turkey reserved the right to leave the anti-missile system within six months if intelligence ended up with non-NATO member states. Ankara would not “allow a regional balance based on Turkish-Iranian enmity,” Davutoglu said in a television interview. “There may be people who want to start a cold war, but neither Turkey nor Iran will let that happen.”
Turkey announced in March 2012 that it would reduce imports of Iranian oil by 20 percent and compensate with increased imports of Libyan and Saudi oil. Although this decision was made as the violence in Syria continued, it should rather be seen within the context of Turkey’s foreign policy objective of balancing its relations with Iran and traditional Western allies. The United States, which remains a close ally of Turkey despite the AKP’s desire to gain greater autonomy from Washington, still has significant influence over Turkey. Thus, Ankara’s decision to reduce Iranian oil imports is likely a consequence of pressure from Washington. In an effort to maintain a balanced position between the West and Iran, Prime Minister Erdogan reaffirmed his belief that Iran is not attempting to develop a nuclear weapon.
The outcome of sectarian conflicts and tensions in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen will certainly have an impact on the capacity of Turkey and Iran to advance their hegemonic ambitions in a new Middle East. These conflicts of interests will position the two countries as competitive rivals who place bets on different horses. Nonetheless, mutual vital interests — primarily related to commerce, energy, and Kurdish nationalism — will likely prevent the two states from growing hostile as Iran and Iraq were throughout the 20th century. In the words of Alex Vatanka, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, Turkey and Iran have “lots to walk away from” after 10 years of fostering collaborative ties.
Since the AKP came to power, improved diplomatic relations with Iran have accompanied growing economic and energy ties. Vatanka notes that “trade volumes shot up from about $1 billion per year in 2000 to about $16 billion in 2011.” According to Nader Habibi, professor of economics at Brandeis University, “in the first quarter of 2011, Iran was the leading exporter of crude oil to Turkey, with a 30 percent share of Turkey’s total oil imports, while it was also the third largest provider of Turkey’s natural gas, after Russia and Iraq.” Turkey values Iran as an oil and gas exporter because it has enabled Turkey to gain greater energy autonomy from Russia. Additionally, Iran has provided Turkey with high levels of foreign direct investment in recent years. In 2002, only 319 Iranian firms operated in Turkey. This number rose to 1,470 in 2010 and 2,072 in 2011.
The western-imposed sanctions on Iran have increased the value that Iran places on Turkey as a trade partner. Habibi writes that “Iran views Turkey as a valuable partner for neutralizing the international economic sanctions and reducing her international isolation; and by deepening its economic interdependency with Turkey, Iran is also trying to discourage Turkey from supporting the sanctions itself.” Due to the sanctions, machinery and other products cannot be imported normally into Iran. Iranian industries have relied on Turkey (as well as China, Iraq, and Turkmenistan) to overcome the sanctions and be linked to the international economy.
In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Turkey and Iran also shared mutual concerns about the possibility of Kurdish independence in Iraqi Kurdistan. The fear of militant Kurdish separatists plotting attacks against Turkey and Iran from northern Iraq was the basis of their shared interest in opposing the division of Iraq’s territorial integrity. Throughout 1993 and 1994, Turkey and Iran held approximately 10 meetings and signed a joint security protocol on November 30, 1993. After the second Gulf War, despite competition between the two states for influence in the vacuum created in northern Iraq, both Ankara and Tehran began to view the other as a necessary partner in their quest to deny the Iraqi Kurds an independent state.
As old regimes fall and new ones emerge in the Middle East, legitimate security dilemmas arise for all countries in the region. However, as power vacuums emerge, opportunities for geopolitical advances are also presented. For example, Iraq was a bitter enemy of Iran for several decades, until the old Sunni Ba’athist order collapsed and Iraq’s Shi’a came to power and formed deep political and economic ties with the Islamic Republic. If Assad’s regime cannot survive the current uprising, the emergence of a Sunni government in Damascus will provide an opportunity for Turkey and Gulf states to forge closer ties with a state that is geographically and culturally centered in the middle of the Arab world and cut back Iranian inroads in Lebanon and Palestine. Iran’s national interests in preventing such an outcome will create tension between Ankara and Tehran.
Nonetheless, the rhetoric and actions of politicians frequently diverge. The fact that, so far, Turkey and Iran’s opposing interests in Syria have only led to heated rhetoric indicates that Ankara and Tehran value their cooperative rivalry, even as the ongoing turmoil in Syria polarizes their interests.
Giorgio Cafiero is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.