Iran and Turkey are two influential middle-power countries in the region that have gone through many stages of war, abandonment of hostilities, and cooperation over the centuries. Since the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in Iran, which claimed leadership over the Shiites of the entire Islamic world, and the Ottoman Empire, which was the center of the Sunni caliphate, the two countries had engaged in several prolonged wars. Eventually both found peace, or at least a truce (such as The Peace of Amasya, observed for 20 years), which brought them more benefits than war.
Today, both countries are going through stages of cooperation and competition. However, the geopolitical rivalry, energy and transit race, competition for influence in the region via their proxies in Syria, Iraq, and the South Caucasus, and the recent tensions surrounding water resources – which have also involved Iraq – do not point to a future based on cooperation.
Turkey's recent de-escalation with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and especially Israel, has raised fears in Iran. According to Tehran, Turkey's close relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had led to their cooperation in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq to the detriment of Iran. Cooperation with Israel has increased the risk of security threats and intelligence cooperation between Tel Aviv and Ankara on its northwestern borders. And Turkey's dominance in the South Caucasus has weakened Iran's geopolitical position. A review of events indicates the possibility of further tensions and disputes between the two countries.
This article will examine the competition between Iran and Turkey in the three regions of Iraq, Syria, and the South Caucasus and portray the differences between the two countries in these regions.
Experiences of cooperation
Turkey and Iran have experienced periods of cooperation owing to regional developments and parallel interests. The blockade of Qatar and the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan are two examples. The blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt in 2017, brought Iran and Turkey together in support of Doha. Turkey sympathized with the Qatari authorities for their cooperation in strengthening the Muslim Brotherhood front in the region, as did Iran due to its good relations with Doha and Qatar's support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Most importantly, marginalizing Qatar meant the weakening of political Islam in the region, which was not desirable for either Ankara or Tehran. Thus, both countries lent their support to Qatar to help reduce the effects of the blockade. When Qatar's neighbors closed their land and sea borders as well as their airspace to Doha, Iran opened its skies to Qatari planes and started exporting food and agricultural products to Qatar. Turkey also sent cargo ships and hundreds of planes carrying food products and deployed more military forces to its base in Qatar.
The independence referendum in the Kurdistan Region of the Republic of Iraq (KRI) in 2017 was another point where cooperation between the two countries was observed. Both have Kurdish minorities in their territories and have experienced tensions as a result of Kurdish armed activities for independence. In addition, the Kurds have strong relations with Israel, which Iran in particular considers as an immediate threat. These factors led to Iran and Turkey coming together to reject the referendum calling for Kurdistan's independence and separation from Iraq. Despite over 92% of Iraqi Kurds voting for the independence of Kurdistan, the Iraqi government rejected the results of the referendum, and ultimately, with the resignation of the President of the Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani, the dream for independence was shattered.
Competition prevails over cooperation
Despite the aforementioned cooperation between Iran and Turkey, the changing dynamics in the Middle East has created sensitivities which will no doubt impact relations between the two countries. The change in U.S. policy regarding its presence in the Middle East, which started with former U.S. President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia" strategy, has been upheld by the Biden administration, which has a greater desire to contain China and Russia than to prioritize its presence in the Middle East. As a result, the Middle East countries are having to rely on themselves to provide security and de-escalate tensions with neighboring countries.
However, attempts to de-escalate has caused rivalry between Turkey and Iran as neighboring countries scramble to form alliances with one or the other. This is of more concern to Iran as Tehran is in a state of distrust. It fears that Ankara will join neighboring Arab countries to form a force against Iran, as has been the case in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Thus, the future of relations between the two countries will very likely be based on competition rather than cooperation.
Iraq is considered to be one of the areas of conflict between Iran and Turkey, both of which have engaged in indirect military conflict and confrontation with each other through proxies. Turkey has established dozens of military bases in northern Iraq, which Iran has targeted with hundreds of rockets through its proxies, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Turkish soldiers.
Both sides have consistently accused each other of violating Iraq's sovereignty. In 2017, Ali Akbar Velayati, former Iranian foreign minister and senior foreign affairs adviser to the supreme leader Ali Khamenei, said that Turkey should leave Iraq immediately or the people would “kick them out,” while Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused Iran of fueling sectarianism, referring to Iran’s intentions to establish a Shiite state through the partition of Iraq.
The two main dividing lines between Iran and Turkey in Iraq are the issues of Iran's support for Shia political forces and Turkey's support for Sunnis and Turkmens; and the presence of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and proxy war in Iraq. After the fall of Saddam in 2003, the largely Shia governance in Iraq led to a power struggle between Shia and Sunni groups for political supremacy. Iran has been indirectly interfering in Iraqi elections through the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) – an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization composed of some 40, mainly Shiite, militias loyal to Tehran – while Turkey has been involving itself in the Iraqi political scene through Sunni and Turkmen groups. This race for influence in Iraq has deepened the rivalry between the two countries.
Turkey maintains good relations with the KRI and has established a number of military bases in northern Iraq, from which it frequently launches its attacks, while also supporting the Turkmen Front, one of the largest and most popular Turkmen parties in Iraq, founded in Erbil in 1997 to unify Turkmen political influence. The Turkmen Front, which is composed of several Turkey-backed Turkmen parties, moved their headquarters to Kirkuk after 2003.
The Turkish play on nationalism to infiltrate the Iraqi political arena is increasingly evident with Ankara’s focus on the plight of Iraqi Turkmen, who have two advantages compared to other components of Iraqi society: their main strongholds in areas of strategic importance, notably Kirkuk, which has huge oil reserves, and their ideological struggle with the Kurds who remain, according to Ankara, a threat because of their goal of independence. Over the past few years, Ankara has not concealed its efforts to prop up Iraqi Turkmen in Kirkuk, hoping that by catapulting them into leadership positions, they can control the oil resources there, making it easier for Turkey to reach the oil-rich territory.
The second controversial issue is the presence of PKK forces in Iraq. Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist group and, since 1984, Ankara has had numerous military encounters with the group. The group is based in the Qandil mountains and Sinjar region in northern Iraq. Turkish sources claim that Iran is secretly supporting the Kurds in its fight against the Turkish government. Whenever the Turkish army operates against the Kurdish bases in the Qandil mountains, PKK forces move to the other side of the mountains bordering Iran, where the Iranian government allows them to regroup.
The growing influence of the Iranian-aligned PMF in Kirkuk and Mosul has created complications for Turkey on the borders between Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria. One area where this can be seen is in the Sinjar region, northwest of Mosul, which connects Iraq and Syria. The Turkish army has carried out repeated airstrikes in Yazidi-populated Sinjar, where a Yazidi militia group, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), operates as an affiliate of the PKK.
In November 2015, Sinjar was liberated from the Islamic State by a coalition of Kurdish forces, including the PKK, which saw the region as vital for cross-border operations across Iraq and Syria. Iran's interest in Sinjar became more obvious after the PMF took control of the region in October 2017 and expelled the KRI forces. Since then, the PKK and PMF have continued to control the territory, with YBS and other PKK affiliates also later joining the PMF umbrella. In April 2021, tensions spiraled again when the Turkish army increased its attacks in Sinjar, leading to clashes with Iranian-backed militias.
Syria, like Iraq, has become a source of tension and competition between Iran and Turkey. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2017, unlike Turkey, Iran has supported the Bashar al-Assad regime. Tehran considers Damascus as crucial to confronting Israel and maintaining the axis of resistance, which it has worked hard to form and maintain for decades. At the same time, Turkey, along with certain Arab countries, has been supporting opposition groups fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime, such as the Free Syrian Army. Nevertheless, due to the détente with Russia and the changing regional dynamics, Russia, Iran, and Turkey together decided to launch the Astana Process in 2017, in a bid to restore peace and stability in the war-torn country.
Currently, the most important dispute in Syria is Turkey's decision to create a “safe zone” in northern Syria. “We are going into the new phase of our determination to form a 30-km (20-mile) deep safe zone along our southern border. We will clear Tal Rifaat and Manbij of terrorists, and we will do the same to other regions step-by-step,” Erdogan said in a speech on June 1, 2022. He intends to settle one million Syrian refugees in Turkey in the “safe zone” and expel the armed Kurdish groups of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the military branch of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara considers to be a branch of the PKK.
From the Turkish perspective, an operation in Tel Rifaat makes sense, as it would unite the two regions of Afrin and al-Bab that are already under Turkish control. Pushing the YPG/SDF from Tel Rifaat would also improve the volatile security situation in Afrin. Combined with another operation in Manbij, this would enable Turkey to control the entirety of north-western Syria and to push YPG militants east of the Euphrates River.
Iran vehemently opposes Turkey’s intentions. Tehran considers the Shiite towns of Nabal and Al-Zahra in the north of Syria to be in its strategic and ideological sphere of influence and thus constitutes a sensitive issue for Iran. The possible capture of Tal Rifaat – through Turkish proxy forces – which is a short distance from these two towns and the city of Aleppo, increases the risk of these two towns also being attacked.
In addition, northern Syria has great geopolitical importance. It is rich in oil and gas reserves, fed by water from the Euphrates River, and home to the largest dam in Syria. 80 percent of Syria's oil resources are located in the cities of Qamishli and Deir ez-Zor. On March 10, 2020, Erdogan told a group of reporters that Syria's oil revenues should be used to rebuild the war-torn country. He said he proposed the idea to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who apparently replied that it "could be possible." Erdogan’s statements undoubtedly raised concerns among Kurdish forces as well as Iranian authorities.
Turkey's possible attack on northern Syria has caused indirect military clashes between the two countries through their proxies. It has been reported that Kurdish units and Iranian-affiliated factions in Syria have formed a joint operation center – the so-called ‘North Thunderbolt’ – in the village of Hardatnin, in the northern countryside of Aleppo, to counter a possible Turkish military operation in northern Syria. Such an action could push Turkey to strengthen its relations with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and increase cooperation with Israel in order to contain Iran.
The second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020 caused a shift in regional power dynamics in favor of Turkey and Azerbaijan, leaving Iran with a weak hand. Aside from Iran’s interests in Karabakh now being under pressure from Turkey, Tehran also fears ethnic tensions, geopolitical restrictions, and security threats arising from the presence of Israel.
The presence of Israel in Azerbaijan is a controversial issue, which Tehran always claims but Baku consistently denies. The Times, a London-based newspaper, claimed in a report that Israel uses Azerbaijan as a base to spy on the regime in Tehran. "Our presence [Mossad intelligence forces] here is quiet but substantial. We have increased our presence in the past year, and it gets us very close to Iran. This is a wonderfully porous country,” claimed an anonymous agent referred to only as Shimon. In a confidential document disclosed by WikiLeaks – titled “Azerbaijan’s discreet symbiosis with Israel” – the President of Azerbaijan describes his country's relations with Israel as being like “an iceberg”, stating that "nine-tenths of it is below the surface."
In a featured report, Foreign Policy claimed that Israel had gained access to Azerbaijan's air bases, which Tel Aviv may use to carry out attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities. These air bases are important for Israel because the F-15I and F-16I fighter bombers would not have to refuel mid-flight on their 3,540-kilometer return to Israel but could instead continue north and land in Azerbaijan.
One sphere of influence for Turkey in the Caucasus and Central Asia is the common language, history, and culture it shares with the Turkic speakers of this region. Turkey has been exerting efforts to expand and strengthen the union of Turkic countries to gain a foothold in this region. Turkey's military support to Azerbaijan during its war against Armenia, by sending advanced drones to Baku, can be seen as evidence of this. Ankara’s ambitions in Nagorno-Karabakh have no doubt alarmed Tehran.
Iran is home to a wide range of ethnicities. Although there are no exact statistics on the population of Iranian ethnic groups, according to one estimate, Persians make up about 60 percent of the population. Azerbaijanis are the second largest ethnic group, making up around 20 percent of Iran's population. Iran considers this large Turkic population as a threat to the integrity of the country. In the last two decades, pan-Turkism sentiments have increased in the Azerbaijan region of Iran and other provinces that have a Turkic-speaking majority, with instances of provocations and propaganda by pro- and pan-Turkish satellite channels.
These provocations have severely strained relations between Turkic speakers and Persians, causing the smallest incidents to be misinterpreted in the worst possible way. In November 2015, a children's program called “Fitile” – aired on Iranian national television – mocked the Turkic-speaking community, which led to protests in several cities in Iran. More recently, in July 2022, the drying up of Lake Urmia, situated between the East and West Azerbaijan provinces in northwest Iran, also caused protests and anger toward the regime. Lake Urmia is the largest salt lake in the world and, aside from the environmental problems the drying-up of the lake has caused, is a symbol of identity for the Turk-Azeri people living in Iran.
Turkey’s pan-Turkism ambitions have sparked outrage in Iran. In December 2020, at the military parade in Baku on the occasion of Azerbaijan's victory over Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Turkish President Erdogan recited an Azerbaijani nationalist poem that laments the forced and artificial separation of the two sides of the Aras River, and thus the separation of Azerbaijan from Iran’s Azerbaijani province. The implication that the Turkic-speaking provinces of Iran are part of Azerbaijani territory caused resentment in Iran and led to strong protests from the Iranian people and government. Thus, for Tehran, the recent victories of Azerbaijan and Turkey in the Karabakh war constitute a threat to its security, national identity, and territorial integrity.
The second threat of Karabakh for Iran is the presence of Israel in this region. Azerbaijan has "friendly" relations with Israel. Israel imports 40 percent of its crude oil from Azerbaijan. This oil is transported through a pipeline from Baku to the Turkish port of Ceyhan via the Mediterranean Sea and from there to Israel. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, obtains 60 percent of its arms supplies from Israel. During the visit of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Baku in 2016, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pointed to the huge dimensions of this trade, stating that Azerbaijan had agreed to purchase weapons worth five billion dollars from Israel. According to reports, Israel's arms exports to Azerbaijan, including missiles, radar systems, ammunition, and especially drones, played a key role in the country's military superiority in the war with Armenia.
Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel in 1949. However, relations between the two countries deteriorated periodically over the years. Nevertheless, in the last year, the two countries have engaged in efforts to rebuild their relationship. Iran is suspicious of Israel's close cooperation with Azerbaijan and Turkey in Karabakh and fears that this will lead to security cooperation against Iran. Tehran has warned Azerbaijan not to cooperate closely with Israel, and in response, in October 2021 and 2022, held military drills near Azerbaijan's borders.
Israeli Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Oded Forer's trip to Azerbaijan on May 19 and his visit to the construction of a “smart village”, built jointly with Azerbaijan just seven kilometers from the Iranian border,  was viewed by the authorities of Tehran as an indication of further joint espionage as well as security and military activities by Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Israel, on its northwestern borders. Israel's history of past intelligence activities in Azerbaijan has instilled a sense of insecurity in Iran, and thus Tehran considers any form of collaboration as a means for espionage.
Iran and Turkey have competing interests in Syria, Iraq, and Karabakh. In addition, the plan to transport gas from Israel or Iraqi Kurdistan to Europe through Turkey has created intense rivalry between the two countries. This project is deeply disturbing for Iran at this time as Tehran is engaged in negotiations to resolve its nuclear dispute with Europe and the U.S., and has pinned hopes on becoming a major supplier of gas to Europe
The differences between Turkey and Iran have also extended to water resources, with Tehran objecting to the construction of a dam on the Aras, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers that flow through Iraq and Iran from Turkey. However, a full-scale conflict between the two countries, either now or in the future, seems unlikely.
Both countries throughout history have found ways to resolve their issues despite their underlying differences. The volume of trade between the two countries, the export of Iranian gas to Turkey, and the ongoing negotiations to extend their soon-to-expire 25-year gas export contract, have been major factors pushing them to manage their differences.
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