Galip Dalay:  Turkish-Iranian Relations Are Set to Become More Turbulent

In recent years there have been many similarities between the foreign policies of Turkey and Iran. Both countries have adopted different versions of “resisting Western designs” for the region. Iran’s narrative is well-known: resisting the U.S.-Israeli designs for the region through an “axis of resistance.” For Turkey, the political and territorial gains by Kurds in Syria and Iraq during the fight against Islamic State have reignited long-held elite fears or paranoia that the United States and the West were midwifing Kurdish statehood. (Even though U.S. opposition was arguably one of the most critical factors in the Iraqi Kurds’ botched independence referendum of 2017.)


Reflecting this reading of regional politics, Turkey has had two Iran policies instead of one. One concerned Iran’s behavior in the immediate neighborhood, such as in Syria and Iraq, which was often in competition with Turkey as they supported different alliance structures and pursued contrasting geopolitical aspirations. The second policy considered the larger geopolitical context of the Middle East and perceived a bigger threat from the regional aspirations of the anti-Iran camp than from those of Iran. Turkey saw this camp’s idea of regional order as not only excluding Iran and its militia network, but also excluding Turkey and its political Islamic allies.


Apart from this broader framework, two other developments were critical in facilitating Turkish-Iranian cooperation: the blockade of Qatar and the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan and related developments in regional Kurdish geopolitics.


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Emerging Sources of Friction

The dynamics on these three fronts are changing, however, and the tension between Turkey and Iran is likely to increase.


First, despite Erdoğan’s bromance with Trump, the change of administration in the United States alleviates some of Turkey’s concerns at the regional level. More specifically, the fact that the new administration will not pursue regime change in Iran and is less likely to support a regional order that is based on the Gulf states and Israel will reduce Turkey’s appetite to gloss over its differences with Iran.


Turkish-Iranian relations are essentially competitive. In this respect, Ankara would support efforts aimed at behavior change in Tehran and reducing Iran’s regional footprint. In the same vein, Turkey is likely to become more vocal in its criticism of Iran’s militia network in its immediate neighborhood such as in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as more willing to support efforts to push back against their influence. In response, Iran’s militia network, particularly in Iraq, is likely to be more accommodating towards the Kurdistan Worker Party (PKK). In any case, from an outside perspective, it appears that Iran frames its national security as a network encompassing the security of its allied militia network across the Middle East. This runs counter to Turkey’s power and influence projection, which also to a certain degree relies on its militia network in neighboring countries.


Second, the number of disagreements between Turkey and Iran are growing, and the geopolitical area of their competition is enlarging. The latest example is the geopolitical picture that has emerged in the South Caucasus as a result of the recent fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, during which Turkey directly extended support and supplied arms to Azerbaijan. The fragile situation that has followed illustrates Turkey’s increased role, Russia’s primacy, and Iran’s decreased footprint in the emerging order in the South Caucasus. Moreover, it is highly likely that there will be more efforts by Turkey to cultivate closer ties with different Sunni actors in Lebanon, which means that it is likely to be more critical towards actions by the Iran-aligned Hezbollah.


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Third, the Astana trio of Russia, Turkey, and Iran has effectively morphed into an Astana duo of Russia and Turkey when it comes to northwestern Syria, particularly regarding Idlib province. Moscow and Ankara prefer to keep the discussion on Idlib in a bilateral rather than trilateral format, which causes concern and consternation in Tehran.


Finally, there have recently been several signs of Turkey and Saudi Arabia trying to improve their relations, as well as a few modest steps taken by Turkey aimed at testing the waters with Israel and Egypt. None of these attempts have produced anything concrete yet, and one should not read too much into these signs or outreach efforts. But if they bear some results—with the most likely being the Saudi-Turkish track right now—this will bear negatively on Turkish-Iranian ties, though in a limited manner.


When King Salman assumed the throne in 2015, before the blockade on Qatar and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate general in Istanbul, relations improved for a while. Back then, in its narrative, Turkey explicitly supported the Saudi war in Yemen, called on Iran to withdraw from the country, and joined Riyadh’s so-called Islamic military alliance against terrorism, which many saw as targeting Iran. In this period, Erdoğan accused Iran of attempting to dominate the Middle East, which he said was anathema to Turkey.


For a long time, Turkey used to make a distinction between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and it was more willing to criticize the latter. As the significance of political Islam has considerably declined in regional politics and Turkey has lost its appetite to support the waves of uprisings in the Arab world, as seen in its lack of interest in the ones in Algeria or Sudan, there now appears to be more room for engagement with Saudi Arabia. Once these ideological and uprisings-induced factors are set aside, there is not much incompatibility between Saudi Arabia and Turkey when it comes to their regional politics. If their relations improve, this will affect Turkish-Iranian relations negatively.



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As stated above, Erdoğan’s reciting of a nationalist poem in Baku caused a political firestorm in Tehran. However, the political and geopolitical trends across the region and beyond are likely to induce more turbulence in Turkish-Iranian relations. And the ripple effects of this turbulence will likely be felt in different regional spots.


Galip Dalay is Richard von Weizsäcker fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy, associate fellow at Chatham House, doctoral researcher at the History Faculty at the University of Oxford, and non-resident fellow at Brookings Doha Center.



Link to original article is here



Published By: Atilla Yeşilada

GlobalSource Partners’ Turkey Country Analyst Atilla Yesilada is the country’s leading political analyst and commentator. He is known throughout the finance and political science world for his thorough and outspoken coverage of Turkey’s political and financial developments. In addition to his extensive writing schedule, he is often called upon to provide his political expertise on major radio and television channels. Based in Istanbul, Atilla is co-founder of the information platform Istanbul Analytics and is one of GlobalSource’s local partners in Turkey. In addition to his consulting work and speaking engagements throughout the US, Europe and the Middle East, he writes regular columns for Turkey’s leading financial websites VATAN and and has contributed to the financial daily Referans and the liberal daily Radikal.