As tensions escalate between the West and Iran over the country’s nuclear program, some Western analysts cannot help but be excited that Turkey’s relationship with Iran also seems to be deteriorating. Indeed, the two neighbors, who only recently appeared to be forging a close friendship, now find themselves on opposite sides of conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain, with Turkey’s decision to host a NATO missile shield as yet another point of divergence. But to suggest that these tensions will lead to a complete breakdown in the Turkey-Iran relationship is to sensationalize the rift, just as earlier fears of an anti-Western Turkish-Iranian alliance misunderstood Ankara’s engagement with Tehran.
To be sure, Turkey and Iran’s battle for regional hegemony has intensified recently amidst historic changes in the Middle East. In Syria, Turkey has abandoned its close friendship with President Bashar al-Assad, and is leading international efforts to bolster the Syrian opposition and end the humanitarian crisis there. Iran, by contrast, remains one of the few supporters of the Assad regime, and continues to provide arms, surveillance, and training to Syrian security forces as they brutally crush protests.
With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the escalation of sectarian tensions, Turkey and Iran’s competing interests have also come to the fore in that country. Iran openly supported the Shi’a Dawa party of President Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in the 2010 parliamentary elections, while Turkey was accused of siding with the Sunni faction by supporting the pan-Arab Iraqqiya coaliton of Ayad Allawi. But Ankara has sought to transcend sectarian divides in Iraq — in stark contrast to Iran’s overt embrace of sectarianism — and supported Iraqqiya as a means to ensure that no single group dominates the country.
Turkey and Iran have also had competing interests in the small Gulf island of Bahrain, where Iran has sought to influence the mostly Shi’a-dominated protest movement as Turkey has come out in support of the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy with whom it hopes to pursue closer economic ties (In this case Turkey, like the U.S., is in the hypocritical position of opposing democratic change). Some pundits have argued that such developments reflect a sectarian struggle between Sunni Turkey and Shi’a Iran. Nevermind that just last year, many of those same pundits claimed that the Islamization of Turkish politics was driving rapprochement between these countries. Likewise, fears that Turkey’s "neo-Ottoman" orientation pushed it toward Iran have now given way to claims that the two imperial succesor states are playing out a centuries long Ottoman-Safavid rivalry for regional dominance.
The growing stridency of public rhetoric in both Turkey and Iran has also done its part to encourage hopes of a dramatic break. In November, shortly after Turkey agreed to host an early warning radar as part of NATO’s missile defense system, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ aerospace division, stated that "should we be threatened, we will target NATO’s missile defense shield in Turkey and then hit the next targets." Ali-Akbar, senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, argued that Turkey’s model of "secular Islam" was a version of western liberal democracy and unacceptable for countries going through an "Islamic awakening." Similarly, earlier this month Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said, "I am addressing the Islamic Republic of Iran: I do not know if you are worthy of being called Islamic; have you said a single thing about what is happening in Syria?"
After constant images of Turkish and Iranian leaders embracing and speaking of Turkish-Persian brotherhood throughout 2009 and 2010, no one can be blamed for assuming that these public spats reflect a historic low. Yet there has always been a complexity to the Turkish-Iranian relationship that includes elements of cooperation as well as hostility. Turkey has traditionally viewed Iran, unlike how it has viewed other Middle East countries, as a large and important nation-state that must be managed, rather than confronted. This has meant that often times the two countries find ways to work together just as they are competing against one another in other fronts.
Throughout history, Turkey engaged Iran despite a deep mistrust of the country. Although the 1979 Iranian revolution pitted Islamic, anti-American Iran against secular, pro-Western Turkey in a polarized Cold War context, Ankara became one of the first countries to recognize the new Islamic government and refused to impose sanctions or assist in the mission to rescue U.S. embassy hostages. Similarly, during the Iran-Iraq war, Turkey cultivated trade relations with both warring parties despite Iranian officials’ constant denunciation of Ataturk and Turkish secularism. Further, in the 1990s, Turkey and Iran signed a $24 billion gas deal even while accusing each other of supporting terrorist organizations in one another’s territory — Islamic fundamentalist groups as well as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, and Mujahadin al-Khalk in Iran. The deal remained in place over the next decade while the two countires competed for influence in Central Asia, and Turkey strengthened defense cooperation with Israel.
More recently, Turkey was accused by some of shifting eastward because of closer cooperation with the "resistance" axis of Iran, Syria, and Hamas and rising tensions with Israel. In reality, the country was always seeking to balance its newfound relationships with Middle Eastern states with its decades-long alliance with the West. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran and Turkey stepped up coordination in combatting Kurdish terrorism emanating from northern Iraq, but this did not preclude Turkey from also coordinating its operations against the PKK with the U.S. once a rapprochement occurred at the end of 2007 following Erdogan’s visit to Washington. Nor did it mean that Turkey and Iran pursued the same policies in other parts of Iraq. Similarly, when Turkey voted against a U.S.-backed U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran in June 2010, it still agreed to a NATO anti-missile system over Europe to protect against Iranian ballistic missiles at the Lisbon NATO summit a few months later (although it demanded that the explicit mention of Iran as a threat be removed). Much has been made of the fact that Turkey only agreed to host the system in September 2011 as tensions between Iran and Turkey were escalating, but for all practical purposes the decision had been made at the November 2010 Lisbon NATO summit.
The domestic politics of Turkish-Iranian relations also involve some intriguing ambiguities. When Turkey’s leaders rushed to congratulate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his contested 2009 election, the harshest criticism came from moderate Islamists, who saw this recognition as betrayal of their own struggle for democracy in Turkey, and moderate secularists, who saw it as a concession to theocracy. Meanwhile, more staunch Islamists joined with their more extreme, conspiratorially-minded, secular opponents in denouncing the Green Revolution as a Western conspiracy and urged solidarity with the Iranian regime. Similarly, within Turkey today support for confronting Assad comes from both democratically-minded liberals and Islamists who sympathize with Syria’s Sunni resistance.
Now, as tensions escalate, Iranian and Turkish officials continue to shuttle back and forth between Tehran and Ankara and openly declare their ongoing friendship. Shortly after Iranian military leaders hurled threats at Turkey, the Iranian foreign ministry stated: "The official view of the Islamic Republic of Iran towards Turkey is based on deep brotherhood and friendship." And while the U.S. and Europe are ratcheting up sanctions on Iran’s hydrocarbons industry, Turkey has insisted that it will continue to import Iranian oil and gas, which comprises 30 percent and 33 percent of Turkey’s imports, respectively.
Turkey believes sanctions are both ineffective at deterring Iran from enriching uranium as well as damaging to its own strong economic ties with Iran — trade between the two countries reached $16 billion in 2011. It has been equally insistent on both the futility and danger of an Israeli strike against Iran. Yet this does not mean Turkey would be happy to see Iran go nuclear. Turkish leaders have been clear that an Iranian bomb would be a threat to their own security — and the region’s. There has been a fair dose of optimism to Turkey’s hope that Iran can be stopped with an all-carrot diet, but there is also a real sensitivity in Ankara to the suggestion that Iran could be cynically exploiting Turkey’s eagerness for negotiations.
So what does this mean for the U.S.? It means that even though Turkish-Iranian relations are increasingly strained at the moment, Turkey will never take as aggressive a posture towards Iran as the West would like. Just like every other state, Turkey bases its foreign policy on a combination of values and interests. Given its economic, geographic, and historical link to Iran, Turkey’s interests will not always perfectly align with Washington’s. But with both countries increasingly eager to champion democratic values in the Middle East, they should not let divergent interests prevent them from working together to condemn Iran’s human rights abuses. On more pragmatic grounds, Washington can point out that if confronted with a nuclear Iran, Turkey will continue to enjoy protection from NATO’s nuclear deterrent, and it is in part this gurantee that has kept Ankara from being more alarmed by the prossibility of an Iranian bomb. NATO’s commitment to Turkey’s defense is not dependent on Turkey’s cooperation, but it nonetheless carries with it a set of mutual obligations toward the interests of the alliance. In hosting missile defense sites Turkey has helped fulfill these obligations.
Where U.S. and Turkish interests align, as they now do over curbing Iran’s regional influence, both countries should be grateful and quick to capitalize on that fact. When further differences do occur, as they surely will again, they should not be exaggerated or despaired over. Rather both sides should take them in stride while continuing to cooperate in pursuit of their many shared goals.
Daphne McCurdy is a Senior Research Associate with the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). Nick Danforth is a PhD candidate in the Georgetown University History Department.