Is It Rivalry Or Cooperation? The Relations Between Turkey And Iran

MG (Ret). Sayed Ghoneim, Chairman, Institute for Global Security & Defense Affairs (IGSDA)

20 June 2020

The Nature of the Turkish-Iranian Rivalry:

It is doubtless that the most important regional rivalry in the Middle East is between the two regional powers: Turkey and Iran. Each of the two countries has a major regional strategy which extends out other regions. Significant activities of both countries are traced in the Middle East, North Africa, Horn of Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia besides others; not to mention the Iranian incursion into South America which is the backyard of the United States.

Both countries have colonial origins since they are the descendants of two empires that have had an expansionary history in several regions. Although they are Muslim countries, they have sectarian disharmony.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and Ataturk’s declaration of Turkey as a modern state in 1923 and the beginning of Turkey’s transformation into a secular national state with common interests and relations with the West, the Turkish domestic policy has developed. Since then, the Turkish army has raised and defended a secular flag; to the extent that the Turkish army has possessed the supreme and influential say on Turkish political decisions. That status has had a positive impact on Turkish / Israeli relations in in recent history. Thus, Turkey has become one of the most important partners of Israel on all tracks in light of the military relations that has strongly extended to political, economic, technological and other relations.

During this period, the biggest loser was Iran. During the era of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, it was doubtless that Egypt was the most dangerous threat to Israel and its arch enemy since its inception. The whole world had seen Nasser’s nationalistic animosity towards Israel which included the Western Bloc supporting it. However, it was not a religious animosity since Islam and Judaism are heavenly religions; and that there were Egyptian Jews in Egypt who held the Egyptian nationality. Then, President Sadat came to office in 1970 and concluded the peace agreement with Israel in 1979; 6 years after October War. The military enmity had gradually dwindled between the two countries; yet, Egyptian-Arab public opinion against Israel was retained.

On the other side, the Iranian religiously tinctured antagonism towards Israel appeared with the birth of the Islamic State in Iran under the rule of the Mullahs. During that time frame, the Turkish / Israeli relations were undergoing constant advances; and that of course increased the Iranian / Turkish competition. That status quo went on until Erdogan came to office as Prime Minister of Turkey in 2002 along with his religious party’s insights and agendas. That time witnessed the beginning of the Turkish / Israeli rivalry, on the one hand; and the domestic competition between Erdogan’s government and the Turkish army on the other. That status pushed Erdogan to gradually weaken the influence of military commanders inside Turkey; along with their relations with Israel. Erdogan’s objective was to demise the strength of the Turkish military and the Israeli influence that had penetrated inside Turkey with its impact on Turkish political decisions. Finally, Erdogan resolved that standoff to his favor following the failed Turkish military coup against him in mid-July 2016.

Definitely, what happened was in the interest of Iran. The Islamic State came to agree with Turkey in its enmity with Israel through the Palestinian Cause. Such a situation led to the advent of a Turkish-Iranian rivalry on Egypt and Jordan, the two Sunni national states, within the framework of the Palestinian Cause. The situation here is that the Shiite Iran and the Sunni Turkey have come to consensus on a common rival; namely, Israel.

The recent Turkish –Iranian shift from rivalry to temporary cooperation:
No one could keep a closed eye to the Turkish – Iranian military skirmishes in Syria that have led to a military clashes between the two countries in Idlib/Syria in February 2020. However, within the attire of the “seemingly” positive developments in the relations between the two countries, they have significantly succeeded in the past few years to reduce tensions through multilateral dialogue and conflict management platforms. Iran strongly opposed the military coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. Turkey, in turn, criticized the protests in Iran in 2018 and in Iraq in 2019. Those two protests had the potential to destabilize the Iranian establishment and its regional influence. With the passing of a few more years, the two countries have gotten closer from one another due to few factors; the most important of which are:  the varying levels of suspicion and enmity towards the role of the United States in Syria, a common growing threat from the PKK and its regional branches, the of Turkish- Iranian unified position against boycotting Qatar and the rivalry, that may reach the level of joint Turkish / Iranian enmity towards Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Israel.

Despite the fact that the US sanctions on Iran have reduced the trade exchange between Turkey and Iran by almost 50%. Such sanctions have been enveloped with the hope of widening the gap between the two countries since their rapprochement will severely harm American and European interests. However, Turkey still insists on supporting its relations with Iran in order to temporarily avoid the chronic state of rivalry between them. Turkey still needs Iran in many issues. One of them is to pass Turkish economic activities into Central Asia through Iran. The other is the Turkish – Iranian cohesion against Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Syria and perhaps in Libya.  Meanwhile, Iran needs another regional power such as Turkey to support its position against a common competitor in Yemen. Thus, the situation in conflict hotbeds will have a highly complex nature.

The role of Russia, the general coordinator between the two rivals, appears at that point. Russia has managed to drive the rivalry among Turkey, Israel and Iran in Syria. I could see Russia seeking to play the same role in Libya; perhaps with Israel being replaced by Egypt. In Yemen, Russia still has two options; either to intervene militarily or to continue its political role in the crisis which is manifested in supporting the legitimate government and maintaining the presence of the Houthis; which is to be done in alignment with Iran and the active Gulf states there.

The Future of the Turkish / Iranian Relations:

In a press conference with his Turkish counterpart, Jawish Oglu, in Ankara, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated: “We have close and common views with Turkey, and we exchanged views regarding the crisis in Yemen and the suffering of the Yemeni people. For years, we have wanted to improve conditions in Libya and Yemen, and we have common views with Turkey and we support the legitimate government in Libya and we believe that it (i.e. Alsarraj government) is capable of ending the crisis. Therefore, we believe that we can cooperate in our common vision; both in Yemen and in Libya.”

Here, the parties of the conflict in the crises of Libya and Yemen have to be revisited. Iran declares its support to Alsarraj government in Libya which is in rivalry with the Althani government in Benghazi supported by Syria, the most important ally to Iran north of the Shia crescent. On another track, the Alsarraj government receives US and European support in the presence of Russian backing to Haftar, the arch enemy of Alsarraj. It is as if Iran, in Libya Libya stands in the same line with its chief enemy; i.e. USA.

On another venue, we find that Zarif’s statement regarding an Iranian-Turkish consensus in their stance towards the Yemeni crisis vis-à-vis Turkey’s type of support in Yemen. Turkish intelligence elements are working through that type of support in Yemen with the Yemeni Reform Party affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood and the arch enemy of the Houthis.

Truly, it seems to me that it is a rivalry with entangles ends. Turkey and Iran with Qatar in between against KSA and UAE. There is another rivalry which includes Israel at one end and Turkey and Iran on the other. Iran is an enemy to KSA, UAE and Israel while Turkey is a strong rival against KSA and UAE and a cautious one to Israel. Turkey works in a new security dynamic against USA that swings between discrepancies of interests and impositions of agreements under the military threats and escalating sanctions by USA against Iran. Meanwhile, we have to consider the Egyptian stance that is ideologically antagonistic to Turkey and Qatar in general due to their support to the Muslim Brotherhood Organization; in addition to the Egyptian security stance that rivals that of Turkey in Libya. The prime beneficiaries of all this rivalry are Qatar, on one side, and Russia backed by China on the other.

From what have been said, I see that Javad Zarif’s statement regarding the harmony of the Iranian / Turkish tendencies and interests in Libya and Yemen is to lure and disperse the Western camp, the Gulf rivals and Egypt without a reciprocal Iranian-Turkish move in the two focal points of the conflict. However, I expect that the positive interaction between Turkey and Iran will continue temporarily. Turkey will continue to try to attract other countries that support its status in Libya such as Algeria and Tunisia. The Russian presence will continue, and the United States and the Western camp’s flounder will go on without any Turkish military action in Yemen or an Iranian military action in Libya.