What Is Behind the Current Tension in Turkish-Iranian Relations?

Turkey and Iran continue to be important Middle Eastern nations. Due to their geographical proximity, imperial past, violent rivalry, theological tensions (between Sunnism and Shiism), and, of course, the continuous divergence of geopolitical interests, both nations have a rich history of relations.

There were multiple Turkish-Persian clashes and wars, with various interruptions and varying degrees of success, during the Ottoman and Persian empires. Regarding the significance of the harem in the Ottoman Empire, historians have observed that, unlike the Turkish-Persian conflicts, which occasionally came to an end during periods of truce, the harem wars continued unabatedly. The reasons for these wars were varied, with religion often becoming a justification for the ambitions of Istanbul or Tehran. As a rule, it was a struggle for the right to own border territories from the Caucasus to Asia Minor, for the right to control strategic trade and military communications (for example, the area between Tigris and Euphrates, Eastern or Western Armenia and Syria).

In fact, such a confrontation lasted from the Middle Ages until World War I. The long military and political conflict between the Persians and Turks in such important regions, where the interests of the leading powers of Europe and Russia were represented, led to the establishment of a special international border commission with the participation of Britain and Russia at the turn of the twentieth century to facilitate the delimitation of Persia and the Ottoman Empire. But because London and St. Petersburg had their own distinct interests in the Near and Middle East, this commission never accomplished its mission.

There were also more stable times between Iran and Turkey in the new era. After World War II, from 1955 to 1979, Tehran and Ankara became even politico-military allies in the CENTO (Central Treaty Organization or Baghdad Pact) regional bloc, which emerged thanks to the Middle East diplomacy of Britain and the United States. While the Shah’s regime in Iran remained an ally of the West and Iranian oil and gas were exploited in the interests of London and Washington, Tehran was a regional partner of NATO member Turkey.

The situation changed after the February 1979 revolution in Iran, as the overthrow of the pro-American Shah’s regime and the ascension to power of the Shiite mullocracy brought about a major change in the disposition of forces in the Middle East. Since then, there have been renewed notes of mistrust and tension in Iranian-Turkish relations across the Middle East and global agenda, some of which remain relevant to this day.

It cannot be said that pragmatism in the approaches of Turkey and Iran has lost importance after the overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlavi. Despite harsh anti-Iranian sanctions, Ankara was forced to retain trading with Iran and keeps shipping gas in varying volumes due to its limited own energy supplies.

With the change of political regime in Iran after the 1979 revolution in Kemalist Turkey, where the secular regime suppressed the sprouts of Islamic revival, the politicization of Islam (albeit of Shiite origin) in the 1980s and 1990s still influenced the public consciousness of the Turkish masses in favor of the growing role of religion in the state.

The Kurdish issue remains a common concern between Turkey and Iran. Ankara and Tehran oppose all forms of Kurdish statehood and threats of ethnic separatism. However, in the situation of the Kurds after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran there have been some changes. Some experts believe, not unreasonably, that the phenomenon of the Shiite revolution in February 1979 has both external and internal justifications.

The external reason was to prevent the leading Anglo-Saxon countries (the US and Britain) from monopolizing and plundering Iran’s strategic resources (oil and gas), as well as to prevent the corrosive influence of Western pop culture on the minds of Iranian youth and the general population. The internal reason, however, was related to the idea of preventing the weakening and collapse of Persian statehood under the threat of ethnic separatism with different colors (Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis). At the same time, Islam, namely political Shiism, assumed the religious consolidation of Iranian society regardless of ethnic origin.

Following the revolution’s victory, Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini summoned Mustafa Barzani, the leader of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, then in exile, to Tehran for a final settlement of the Kurdish crisis on an Islamic basis. According to some reports, such an agreement was accepted by a Kurdish politician, but he never made it to Tehran. CIA handlers then announced an emergency surgery on Mustafa Barzani, but the surgery ended in his death.

The main contradictions between Tehran and Ankara include Turkey’s continued membership in NATO and Shiite-Sunni religious differences between different madhhabs. At the same time, as key countries in the Middle East region, it is natural that Turkey and Iran have different approaches on a number of regional topics (including the Syrian crisis, the situation in Libya and Iraq, and the relationship with Pakistan). The adjacent territories of the South Caucasus and Central Asia occupy a distinctive place in this package of contradictions following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the parade of sovereignties of post-Soviet states.

First, Iran is concerned about the renaissance of Turkey’s pan-Turkic and pan-Turanist ambitions toward the Turkic countries of the CIS, which could seriously weaken Iran’s position if the Turan project succeeds.

Second, Tehran watches with great caution the geo-economic projects in the Caspian energy region, which with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the weakening of Russia got a start and developed thanks to the joint initiatives of Turkey and its NATO allies (primarily, the UK and the US). At the same time, this concern of the Persian state is determined not only, or rather, not so much by the considerations of the new direction of oil and gas exports to Turkey as by Ankara’s plans to create alternative energy transit routes bypassing Russia and Iran to bring exporters from Turkic countries to world markets (especially to Europe) and turn the Turkish territory into a major hub. In other words, Iran, as an oil and gas-rich country, is concerned about the geopolitical consequences of transformations in the South Caucasus and Central Asia in favor of the strengthening of Turkey, the United States and Britain.

Third, taking into account the Turkish-Azerbaijani tandem that has formed on Iran’s northern borders, Tehran is anxiously observing the trend of Israel showing up along the Iranian-Azerbaijani border line on the Arax River, the increased intelligence presence of the Mossad and Aman in the same Azerbaijan with the approval of NATO member Turkey.

Fourth, there is now a certain geopolitical rivalry between Turkey and Iran, with a religious connotation in as yet predominantly Shiite Azerbaijan. Given that the Azerbaijani authorities have based their relations with Turkey on the pan-Turkic slogan and the principle of “one nation, two states,” Iran notes the active political persecution of Azerbaijani Shiites (including often with accusations of spying for IRI) by Baku. Moreover, IRGC sources in Azerbaijan note an increasing number of cases of religious interference by Turkey in the Sunnization of Azerbaijani Shiites. Tehran sees all these actions as an attempt by Ankara to weaken the influence of Shiite Iran in this Transcaucasian republic.

After Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s victory in the elections and his visit to Baku, assessing the situation with the Zangezur corridor in Armenia, the Turkish leader, not by chance, stressed that the main reason for blocking this corridor was not Yerevan, but Tehran. Iran indeed publicly through the mouths of Ayatollah Ali Khomenei, President Ibrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian has repeatedly noted that for it the Zangezur corridor remains a “red line,” it is unacceptable to change the borders of neighboring republics of the South Caucasus (in particular, Armenia) and it is important to maintain the direct multi-millenial border of Iran with Armenia.

Tehran does not want NATO to strengthen in the region on the shoulders of its member Turkey, nor does it want to see the Turan project implemented with pan-Turkic content. Otherwise, Iran will be blocked by unfriendly forces on its northern borders, including the emergence of a bridgehead of Zionist Israel on the banks of the Arax River.

With his statement, Erdoğan not only expresses his dissatisfaction with the regional policy of Iran that three Muslim states (Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran) through the fault of Persians can’t solve the road question peacefully and get economic dividends but actually says that Iran is not allowing the Turkish-Azerbaijani tandem to start a war with Armenia again and take by force the Meghri segment of the Zangezur corridor (if not all of Zangezur – Syunik Province) from the latter.

Given that Russia is now forced to engage in the western flank of the geopolitical confrontation with the West in Ukraine and is therefore interested in maintaining a partnership with Turkey for the same transit and out into the world, it cannot strain relations with Ankara in Armenia (Transcaucasus). Iran becomes the main opponent of Turkey in this theater.

In the second half of June 2023, Turkey and Azerbaijan announced the formation of a unified system of control and management of airspace from the Aegean Sea to the Caspian Sea according to NATO standards (the Turkish HAKİM Air Command Control System). The latter is practically capable of establishing airspace control in the South Caucasus region and threatening not only Armenia but also Iran. Given the existence of a common air defense system between Armenia and Russia within the CSTO, such a move by the tandem of Ankara and Baku is in some ways a challenge for Russia’s regional interests as well.

Since the beginning of 2023, trade turnover between Iran and Turkey has decreased by 20%, where the main export commodity for the Turkish side remains gas. Apparently, such a decline in economic relations between these countries was the result of a number of objective and subjective reasons (such as the crisis in the energy market due to anti-Russian sanctions and rising prices, the earthquake and rising inflation in Turkey, the devaluation of the Turkish lira, and Ankara’s pressure on the issue of the Zangezur corridor). In response to Moscow’s proposal to create a gas hub in Turkey, Iran came up with an equally ambitious similar project in the Persian Gulf. All these processes testify to the growing Iranian-Turkish contradictions.

Moreover, the information about the ongoing closed-door talks between Iran and the USA on the subject of the deblocking of Iranian assets in exchange for American prisoners and, most importantly, about the end of the “tanker war” between Tehran and Washington in the waters of the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman and the export of Iranian oil to world markets (as we know, in the USA itself there is a rise in gasoline prices and an increasing need for oil) creates additional tension in Turkish politics as well.

The US is not yet interested in the implementation of alternative communications from China to Europe through the territory of Turkey (under the One Belt, One Road Initiative). Perhaps Washington is proposing an Indian project through Iran to Europe as an alternative to Chinese transit. And in this geographic preference of the states, a new confrontation between Iran and Turkey is created.

Accordingly, if Iran develops strategic partnerships with countries such as China and India, and can establish certain relationships with the US administration on the nuclear program and oil exports, Turkey will find it difficult to count on success in a battle with Tehran. Moreover, today’s Iranian authorities are interested in strengthening President Erdoğan’s policy independent of the United States, which makes it possible to weaken Washington’s pressure on the region. These are the complicated patterns of the contemporary geopolitical mosaic in the Greater Middle East.

By Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD
Source: New Eastern Outlook

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