On Turkey

Turkish-Iranian Relations Are Set to Become More Turbulent

February 09, 2021
Galip Dalay
9 min read
At a military parade in Baku to mark Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in last fall’s fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recited a nationalist Azerbaijani poem that refers to the forceful and artificial separation of the two sides of the Aras river, effectively dividing Azerbaijan from Iran’s ethnic Azerbaijani province.

This caused a political and emotional firestorm in Tehran and attracted Iranian condemnation and rancor. Led by Foreign Minister Javid Zarif, many Iranian officials took to Twitter to lambast Erdoğan and what they saw as pan-Turkish irredentism and a claim on Iran’s territory. In response, Turkish officials condemned Iran’s “aggressive” and “baseless” accusations.

Set against the close ties between Turkey and Iran in recent years—for example, their close working relationship alongside Russia on Syria will be seen in the next round of the Sochi process on February 16—such high-level acrimonious exchanges came across as surprising to many.

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.)

Turkey and Iran also use a large pool of militias as their “boots on the ground” in different conflict zones. Equipped with an ideology, narrative, and certain political reading of the world, Iran’s militia network appears to be better organized and politically more coherent. In contrast, devoid of any overarching political goals, shared worldviews, and grand narratives, Turkey’s militia network operates more as mercenaries in conflict zones such as Syria and Libya.

And, as two post-imperial states, Iran and Turkey have blended the language of insecurity and grandeur into their foreign policy narratives. The boundaries between what is defensive and what is offensive in their foreign and security policies are not clear cut.

Factors That Brought Turkey and Iran Together

In the last half decade, three factors have been crucial in the formation of closer relations between Turkey and Iran. First, both previously believed that a regional order was in the making that would be premised on closer cooperation between the Gulf states, particularly the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel, and supported by the United States. They expected that this prospective order would be anti-Iran, anti-Turkey, and anti-political Islam, which provided a larger framework for their cooperation.

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.

The Gulf countries’ blockade of Qatar that started in 2017 and lasted until last month was another factor that brought Turkey and Iran closer. Ankara did not regard the blockade as bickering between Qatar and its neighbors. Rather, it saw the crisis as an outgrowth of the Arab uprisings and as another manifestation of the contest for a new regional order. In this reading, given their close relations and similar positions on regional affairs, if Qatar were knocked out of the regional power game, Turkey’s regional role and presence would be further constrained along with that of its allies. Iran appeared to have had a similar reading of the rationale for, and possible repercussions of, the blockade. If it were successful, Turkey, Iran, and political Islamic actors would have suffered a major blow. As a result, Turkey and Iran unequivocally supported Qatar during this crisis.

Developments in broader Kurdish geopolitics have also served to bind Turkey and Iran in recent years. They have the largest and second-largest Kurdish populations in the Middle East respectively. Given their domestic Kurdish issues, both countries display extreme and excessive sensitivity to developments in Kurdish geopolitics. And, with the collapse of the country’s Kurdish peace process, which was launched in 2013 and ended in 2015, a fierce conflictual phase has replaced the brief period of lull on the subject in and outside Turkey. Even before this Ankara had reordered its priorities regarding the Syrian crisis, and now it went from pursuing a regime-change scenario in Damascus to containing and rolling back the political and territorial gains by Syria’s Kurds in the north of the country. This change of course laid the ground for Turkish-Russian-Iranian engagement over Syria, which developed a structured character by the closing days of 2016, as the three countries enabled the Astana process and later the Sochi process.

The Astana process was more about these three countries negotiating to attain their interests within the context of the conflict than they were about Syria or Syrians. In fact, the process changed the course of the conflict: the Assad regime regained more territory and control; the opposition lost legitimacy; Turkey rolled back the Syrian Kurds’ territorial gains; and Russia emerged as the primary player.

Though the Syrian context created more shared ground for Turkey and Iran against the Syrian Kurds’ autonomy project, it was ultimately Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum that led to closer cooperation. On Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey effectively let Iran and its Iraqi Shia militias run the show against the Kurdistan Regional Government. Both countries opposed Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence bid for similar and different reasons at the same time. Given their own domestic Kurdish issues, they oppose the creation of a Kurdish state, fearing that this would further galvanize nationalist feelings and irredentist claims among their own Kurdish populations. Iran’s opposition also stems from the perceived geopolitical identity of such a state, which it believes would be pro-Western, pro-United States, and pro-Israel. Despite having a similar concern, Turkey opposes a Kurdish state in Iraq mainly because of its domestic failure to create a political and identity framework that can accommodate Kurdish demands. In other words, Ankara’s opposition was intimately interlinked with its own crisis of a national identity that failed to accommodate Kurdishness.

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.

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.

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.

Photo credit: Christos S / Shutterstock.com