Turkey/Iran: A Critical Move in the Historical Competition


Turkey and Iran are neighbouring countries that have the deepest roots as states and, historically, in competition in the region, but having completely different visions in recent years in their approach towards regional policies. The approaches of Ankara and Tehran are “in line” with the traditional foreign policies put into effect by the two countries and serve their existing strategies.

Their attitudes during the Arab uprising are merely the derivatives of their general macro policies. However, the two countries, contrary to their global approach to certain issues, sometimes unite for pragmatic purposes; but, this unification, rather than being based on principles, is based on temporary relations of “interest”.

The relations between Turkey and Iran have several focal points: Iran’s controversial nuclear energy discussions, regional competition, approach to the Arab uprising, and the tension fed by different expectations on the future of Syria.

These issues will be the determining factors for the future of the two countries in terms of their medium and long-term relations, as well as their existence in the region. Among those issues, the most prominent ones are the nuclear crisis on a global scale, and the Syria crisis on a regional scale. The latter is also capable of defining the first. Turkey and Iran are the two most important countries in the region and have the deepest historical, cultural and state traditions. They are historically in competition, sometimes threatening one another, but generally not interfering with each other. Their fluctuating relations have been ongoing for many years. Turkey and Iran, as emphasized by Stephan Kinzer, are the two countries in the entire region with a tradition and experience of democracy despite all the antidemocratic aspects of the Islamic regime. Until recently, Turkey’s relationship with Iran was determined by the alliance it created with the USA and Israel based on the perception of a possible internal political threat. Within the framework of its “zero-problem” policy, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government was aiming to reduce problems with neighboring countries as well as to save “excluded” countries like Iran and Syria from isolation by being a bridge between them and the rest of the world. One must bear in mind that Turkey did not hold a purely innocent and friendly agenda while moving ahead with the zero-problem policy. Turkey did not leave aside its own “interests” when it became a member of the club of rare countries capable of maintaining relations with everybody. However, one cannot speak of a single determinant when it comes to the Middle East; every country has many other connections and is under the influence of many other determinants. The ambitious “zero-problem” approach has already petered out as Turkey’s position in foreign politics has shifted from zero-problem to many problems after the upheaval due to the Arab uprising. Adopting a rather harsh manner and a certain mission in dealing with the problems with neighbors and a heavy rhetoric against counterparts is a conscious policy but also an indication that Turkey cannot find its way. Turkey took a courageous step and huge risk by voting in favor of Iran’s nuclear program together with Brazil at the UN General Assembly. Despite all efforts, Iran’s insistence on not backing down left Turkey in a difficult position. In other words, “Turkey was used” or acted naïvely on this issue. This was an important breaking point for Turkey’s confidence in Iran.

The main objective of Turkey’s Iran policy is to maintain a balance in the region. Iran is known to have influence over Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Hamas. In order to implement this policy, Turkey has explained its argument to the West: to balance Iran in the common areas of influence, to prevent Iran from being the only country having control over the areas of influence and to develop a balanced and controlled competition. A few years ago, Turkey started to develop relations with Syria with a twofold objective: to save Syria from isolation and to reduce Iran’s area of influence. The aim was to leave Hamas to Iran. There was a harsh competition over Lebanon. However, Turkey felt obliged to be on good terms with everyone while trying to implement its politics in the region. But this policy was quite naïve and did not stand a chance of success in the Middle East. It should always be remembered that “in the Middle East, you may want to be friends with everybody but this does not solely depend on your intentions”.

While Ankara was busy with all those issues, it also faced criticism over the “axis shift” as a result of the problems with Israel. This was rejected as a discourse, but brought into action over Iran. Ankara abandoned its former position once it understood that its efforts would remain futile against the unclear policies of Iran. It adopted a new policy with the Arab Spring. Although Iran seemed to be standing by the people during this period, it soon lost its credibility because of its Syria policy. The most important reason here is that the Arab uprising had different dynamics than what was considered by Iran; the dynamics lacked the Islamic aspect from the very beginning.

Until the Syria crisis, Iran ignored the impact of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sunnite character of the revolts; however, with Syria, it began to consider the issue as a survival problem. For some, the reason why the AKP government turned its back in a very short time on the Assad regime is because the party has the same roots as the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Taking the initiative unnecessarily

The difference of positions adopted by Turkey and Iran related to Syria indicates a future detachment. Moreover, with the Syria crisis, the polarization on the Shiite – Sunni axis has also sharpened. So far, Turkey (and the Sunni front as dominant as the one in Saudi Arabia) has been careful about not being involved in this axis.

Being unable to convince Iran, Turkey had to change the path. With the placement of the missile shield in our country, let alone changing its axis, Turkey is trying to prove that it is the most important power and actor in the Western alliance. With regards to the Syria issue, Turkey was not “pushed” by others as some suggested, but rather, took the initiative itself to assume this role.

Turkey’s over-engagement in the Syria issue is related mainly to its competition with Iran. This can be explained as “taking the initiative unnecessarily”; in other words, being over involved in an issue beyond the real purpose. However, another reason could be that in the Shiite-Sunni polarization, Turkey, backed by the Gulf countries and the USA against Iran, took on the mission to be the spokesperson and possibly the “striking power” of the Western world. Looking at the general discourse, the intention of Turkey as a “sub-imperial” country and the efforts to create the psychological background for this are quite obvious. 

It is a well known fact that the missile shield has been installed to protect Israel from Iran. With such a move, Turkey has removed doubts about its “axis shift”; however, it received criticism for becoming the executor of the American and Arab policies in the region due to its occasional, and rather overblown, outbursts against Syria.

Turkey had problems with Iraq’s Maliki regime as the two countries had opposing opinions about our country’s Syria policy. The combination of certain developments – Iraq’s Second Vice President, Tariq al-Hashimi, fled Baghdad and sought protection in the Kurdish region of Iraq, Turkey supported the Iraqi Bloc of Hashimi during the elections, and the crisis in Syria – carved out the path leading to Iraq becoming one of the problematic neighbors. The Tehran government wants to use Iraq to conduct the other pillar related to the Syria crisis. In the event that the Damascus regime collapses, the Iran, Iraq, Syria and even Lebanon fronts will also “fall”. It may be meaningful to see the governments of these countries in conflict with Turkey. However, the determined and “dangerous” process adopted by Iran towards Syria is also obvious.

Syria seems to be meeting the requirements of the Annan Plan, however, it continues to bomb cities. The opposition seems to have accepted the Plan but is not implementing it as they do not believe in it. They claim that it is another trick of the Assad regime to gain time. Many, including Russia, know that it is the last chance for the Assad government. A year ago, Turkey, in regards to Syria, raised the bar to the level of “intervention”, but not having received the expected backup from the international community, had to pull back. Lacking the support of the UN or NATO, Turkey had to accept the Annan Plan, which it had declared null and void even before it was adopted. The opposition in Syria is against the Plan, but considers this period as an opportunity to regain power and restructure its organization as “external intervention” seems unlikely in the short run. The countries forming the “Friends of Syria Group” decided to extend financial support and military communications tools. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to arm the opposition and they actually do so. Believing and expecting that the Annan Plan will fail, Turkey has still not accepted the Plan. Hence, the failure of the Plan is directly proportional with the theses of Turkey. However, the Plan, as it is, seems to be unlikely to survive.

In the end, as a country “willing and determined” about the regime in Syria, Turkey’s choice of policy against its regional rival, Iran, will change not only the relations between the two countries, but also the equilibrium in the region in general. Turkey, on stage as a prominent country, should not pursue a short-term policy such as taking advantage of the pressures against Iran. On the contrary, Turkey should be aware that if the competition with Iran approaches a dangerous level, this will be not to the benefit of our country, but to the benefit of those like Saudi Arabia, who pursue different agendas to protect their oppressive and retrogressive regimes. The destiny of Syria will function as a litmus test in the future of relations between Turkey and Iran.

The Safavid and Ottoman empires fought each other multiple times during the 16th and 17th centuries, but neither of the parties had the upper hand over the other. What they did was to weaken each other against Europe. In the end, the Treaty of Zuhab was signed, defining the border between Turkey and Iran. The border has never been violated to date, and the parties never fought, although there were small conflicts. This border is the only border in the Middle East, including the recent ones, which was not drawn with an imperial ruler. We can assume that it will not be distorted. Ever-lasting competition between the two countries will continue intensively in areas other than those in armed conflict - with or without Syria.