By Alex Vatanka
The Iranian-Turkish conflict about the future of the Assad regime in Syria has the potential to set back relations between Ankara and Tehran by decades. However, the conflict has not reached a tipping point and it is unlikely to do so as long as the Iranian-Turkish rivalry is limited only to tactical efforts by each side in shaping the power struggle in Syria. What will significantly change the Iran-Turkey-Syria equation is if Tehran concludes that Turkey is leading a protracted US-backed drive to bring about regime changes in the Middle East and that “Libyan model” can be repeated first in Syria and later in Iran. Absent of such a scenario, Iran is neither overly free to shape the outcome in Syria nor reliant on the Syrian regime to the degree where it will risk all other regional interests to prop up Assad. Seen from Tehran, the potential loss of the Assad regime is a recoverable strategic setback if it does not have a spillover effect that directly challenges the Islamic Republic’s grip on power in Tehran. Iran’s relations with Syria were from the beginning a marriage of convenience and plenty of suspicion existed in Damascus-Tehran relations before the Arab Spring. The post-Saddam Shia elite in Baghdad have already turned Iraq into Tehran’s key Arab ally and regional priority.
What will also exacerbate Iranian-Turkish tensions is if Ankara deepens its challenge to Tehran’s political influence in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. This scenario has already begun to unfold and notably includes the dangerous introduction of the sectarian factor as a new split in Iran-Turkey ties.
Iranian-Turkish tensions did not begin with the Syrian crisis and the Arab Spring. The rivalry was evident even before and reflects Iran’s innate fears of Turkey gaining geopolitical advantages due to Tehran’s isolation which is a product of its nuclear standoff with the West and the limitations of its political appeal to Arab regimes and peoples. Meanwhile, due to the same international and regional isolation, Tehran is clearly reluctant to simply write off near a decade of investment in strengthening ties with Ankara.
In the short-term, differences over Syria and events elsewhere in the Arab World means that Ankara is no longer trusted as an interlocutor in its nuclear negotiations with the U.S. and West. For the U.S. and the West generally, the present state of affairs in Iran-Turkey relations and the fall of the Assad regime is an opportunity to further isolate Tehran in the hopes of convincing it to reassess its nuclear and regional policies. Additional and tougher rounds of U.S. and European sanctions against Iran which Turkey signs on to will invariably make the instrument of sanctions considerably more likely to change Iranian behavior. Even in such a scenario, however, the West’s ability to count on Ankara in pressuring Tehran will depend on the West not moving the goal posts. Turkey does not want to see a nuclear armed Iran, and can shift its approach toward Tehran as long as prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon is the objective.
How Tehran sees Assad
Iran’s immediate reaction to the Syrian uprising in its early days was the most telling. It was a reaction of bewilderment and hesitancy and revealed how Tehran looks at its long-time Arab partner. The Iranians were at first clearly avoiding any (at least public) unconditional line of support for Assad and plainly kept their options open in the event that Assad’s regime swiftly fell apart as in Egypt. Iran judged that the Syrian crisis represented a challenge to its geopolitical position, but at the same recognized that it could open other opportunities elsewhere in the Arab world. Importantly, the Arab Spring given Iran the potential opportunity to overhaul relations with Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. For Iran to unreservedly back the bloody Syrian crackdown would have been a major liability. The Iranian position was also shaped by the quick Turkish turnaround against Assad and Ankara’s aim for the moral high ground in the region. Iran was disinclined to be the benefactor of an Assad regime run amok in a time of democratic hope in the Middle East.
Without ever openly hinting at any Syrian opposition faction, Tehran was clearly contemplating a likely post-Assad era. Based on available open-source analysis produced in Iran, it can only be assumed that the Islamic Republic at this point judged that its leverage in Syria would not necessarily all disappear along with the regime in Damascus. This dynamic explained the early Iranian hesitancy and showed that the Iranian-Syrian partnership is devoid of a mechanism – such as NATO’s article five – that either Tehran or Damascus can rely on.
Moreover, in the context of assessing the early Iranian hesitancy toward the Syrian crisis one also needs to consider the lack of depth in economic, religious, or cultural linkages between the two countries. Iran’s trade with Syria is around $700 million per year (representing about half of Iranian trade with impoverished Afghanistan and a small portion of Iran’s trade with China of about $30 billion per year). Despite the tendency in the West to classify the Assad regime as Shia and therefore naturally aligned with Iran, there is not a strong sectarian connection here. Compared to the support for Shias in Bahrain for example, there have been no notable examples of Iranian support along sectarian lines for the Assad’s Alawite-led regime. This also reflects the fact that the Islamic Republic, as a Persian and Shia state, cannot afford to conduct its policies along sectarian lines as it will find it much harder to appeal to the Sunni Arab majority of the region.
During the course of the Syrian uprising, Iran’s decision to move toward what is increasingly unconditional support for the Assad regime has come about due to a few key factors. First, since Iran’s initial hesitant reaction, the Assad regime no risks being toppled by the people.
In the meantime, the geopolitical stakes have increased. Iran thinks Turkey has signed up for a U.S.-led campaign along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others to remove Assad, which will isolate Iran further. In a worst case scenario for Tehran, this could mean that the “Libyan model” is repeated in Syria and later aimed at Iran itself. It is not the fate of the Assad regime that disturbs Tehran so much as the precedent Assad’s downfall would set for further U.S.-led action in the region.
Iran is also far less likely to be able to maintain its same degree of influence in Syria in a post-Assad era. Hamas and the broader Muslim Brotherhood, arguably Iran’s key alternatives to Assad in Syria, have abandoned the Assad regime and are resisting Iranian pressures. Despite Assad’s unreliability in the past, the current regime in Damascus is at the moment Iran’s best hope to maintain its geopolitical clout in the Levant. This Iranian position, however, is not set in stone. Tehran’s posture toward Assad can still change depending on realities on the ground in Syria and whether Iran can be allowed to be a stake-holder in Syria’s future.
Iran-Turkey: Lots to Walk Away From
The arrival of the AKP to power in 2002 transformed Iranian-Turkish relations. Ties were strengthened on political, economic, and security levels. Most noticeably, trade volumes shot up from about $1 billion per year in 2000 to about a reported $16 billion in 2011. This increase occurred at a time when Iran faced an incremental economic squeeze by the West and Turkey became an alternative partner. Security cooperation meant joint efforts against militant Kurds and shared Iranian-Turkish opposition to an independent Kurdistan after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
To be sure, the Islamic Republic also publicly welcomed the Islamist attributes Erdogan’s AKP government. But it is important to recognize that mutual tangible benefits ) were the key drivers that pushed relations forward. Islamist ideology was never the glue that cemented Turkish-Iranian ties, despite rhetoric on both sides about pan-Islamist solidarity.
In fact, early on in this Iranian-Turkish renaissance there were expressions of Iranian doubt about Turkey’s intentions. Some question whether the AKP’s Islamist posture was a front for what Jomhuriy-e Eslami called an American Trojan Horse designed to introduce “American Islam” to the region. Iranian criticism of Turkey has not been limited to the hardliners: many analysts associated with Iran’s reformists warned about tempering expectations for what Turkey could do for Iran.
Rivals Before, During and After the Arab Spring
In addition to the ongoing geo-political and economic rivalry between Iran and the AKP’s Sunni Islamist model (particularly in post-Saddam Iraq), Tehran viewed Erdogan’s government as a rival to Iran’s Shia-based velayat-e faqih (rule of the supreme jurisprudent) and a threat to Tehran’s regional aspirations. Most notably, in May 2010, at the height of Iranian-Turkish trust and the signing of the Iran-Brazil-Turkey trilateral deal, Tehran reacted very jealously when Turkey gained much popular Arab support for its anti-Israel posture following the Gaza Flotilla raid.
The Arab Spring has raised the stakes (specifically in Syria, but also in Egypt and elsewhere) for Iran in its regional rivalry with Turkey. Tehran saw Turkey as a de facto collaborator with the West in toppling Muammar Gaddafi. Iran fears and warns Turkey about repeating the “Libyan model” in Syria. In Egypt, Prime Minister Erdogan’s comments promoting secular republicanism was judged as a direct threat to Iran’s message to the Arabs. Iranian propaganda now places Turkey in the same league as Saudi Arabia and Qatar as the three key [Sunni] instigators that push a U.S.-backed anti-Iran agenda in the region. Meanwhile, Turkey’s September 2011 decision to host a NATO anti-missile radar system is viewed in Iran as a major betrayal.
While Iranian leaders see a fair amount to be angry about, yet they have kept the door open to Turkey. A good example of this was Erdogan’s shuttle diplomacy in March that paved the way for the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Istanbul. But it the Iranians did this very reluctantly. At the time, pushing ahead with nuclear talks with the P5+1 surpassed any desire to chide Ankara for its regional policies. Accordingly, it is highly doubtful that Iran will agree to Ankara playing any important role in Iran’s nuclear issue unless it becomes a prerequisite by the West, which is also unlikely. This considerable trust deficit in Ankara-Tehran ties will likely linger in the short to medium term.
Implications for the West
Whether Turkey can play a mediating role in Iran’s nuclear case is up to Tehran and whether it wants continued Turkish involvement. All the indications at the moment show unprecedented Iranian reluctance to turn to Ankara.
This presents an opportunity for the West if planned talks in Baghdad in May fail and imposing more sanctions becomes necessary. In such a scenario, Turkey can move from acting as an independent arbiter – as in May 2010 – to more convincingly aligning itself with the West against Iran. Such a posture by Ankara will not in itself further jeopardize Iran-Turkey relations. Events since early 2011 have already convinced the Iranians that Turkey is firmly anchored in the West and that Turkish goodwill is conditional and finite.
Such a change in posture by Turkey can nonetheless have an important impact on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his faction in Tehran and its reading of the viability of global sanctions against Iran. It could convince them to change course as the gradual political-economic isolation becomes more acute with time unless a resolution to the nuclear issue is found.
In the context of Iranian realities, signs that Tehran is preparing to change course is arguably already evident. The bigger unknown is Turkey’s foreign policy while the Iranian nuclear dispute continues and the Syrian crisis unfolds. Ankara’s regional goals appear far more ambitious than simply nullifying the Iranian nuclear threat or heading off Tehran’s counter-challenge in Syria. An all-out Turkish attempt to make Ankara the central player in the new broader Middle East will inevitably mean a continuation and likely hardening of Turkey’s opposition to Israeli policies and its nuclear arsenal. Such a strategy will at minimum complicate American counter-proliferation efforts and broader regional objectives, including the resolution of the Iranian nuclear challenge.
Alex Vatanka is a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a senior fellow at the US Air Force Special Operations School.