A revival of, or more accurately an intensification of, the ongoing yet veiled strategic rivalry between Iran and Turkey was all but inevitable once popular protests in the Arab world began to spread from one country to another. After all, the two regional giants had, and continue to have, starkly different interpretations of events, while Turkey, much to Tehran’s discomfort, has witnessed a sudden rise in its popularity in Arab streets vis-à-vis that of the Iranian regime which had brutally crushed its own popular uprising a year earlier.
In an important sense, this revival/intensification is just a return to normality in purely geopolitical terms. A glance through the history of relations between Iran and Turkey reveals that the two regional heavyweights have, since the 16th Century, been at odds with one another, and thus tension and fierce competition, as opposed to good-neighborly relations, have been the norm in their bilateral ties.
Ottoman and Safavid Empires were locked in conflict over Iraq as Ottomans tried to preserve it as a Sunni buffer zone against the spread of the Shia’ism presented by the Safavids. This sectarian rivalry continued well into the 20th Century when the end of the First World War coincided with the establishment of secular states in Turkey and Iran. Although Reza Shah and his son were both supporters of Atatürk’s modernization policies, they nonetheless feared the Turkish Republic as a “pan-Turkic structure” that had its eyes on Iran’s own Turkic community.
Relations between the two neighboring states witnessed another downturn after the collapse of the monarchical regime in 1979 and Iran’s subsequent attempts at exporting its revolution to secular Turkey. With the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, however, bilateral ties between Ankara and Tehran began to improve and entered a “golden period” as AKP began implementing its “zero problems” strategy; a strategy, it is interesting to note, that was, among other things, aimed at curbing Iran’s regional influence by bringing Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut into the Turkish orbit through free trade agreements.
Today, however, it is the Syrian uprising that has helped to expose Ankara and Tehran’s hegemonistic competition in the Middle East. Dependent on Assad’s regime as a gateway to the Arab world, Iran is determined to keep Bashar in power, whereas Ankara’s national interest lies in unseating Mr. Assad as it seeks to consolidate its role as a regional enabler and force for good, weaken Iran, and increase its worthiness in Western capitals.
Yet, it would be simplistic to confine the escalating brawl between Iran and Turkey to Syria. Although both Turkey and Iran opposed the Iraq war at first, the fact that they have supported opposing camps in successive Iraqi elections has rekindled their competition. Currently, Ankara and Tehran eye each other warily, with neither side keen on seeing the other to have more influence in Baghdad or over the Iraqi Kurds. Turkey is worried about Iran’s recent attempts at promoting Ayatollah Shahroudi as a possible successor to the aging spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites Ayatollah al-Sistani, while Tehran has its own reservations with regard to Ankara’s ever increasing influence in Kurdistan and southern Iraq.
As Turkey tries to establish itself as an “energy conduit from the Middle East to Europe”, moreover, Tehran stands in opposition to Ankara claiming that Turkey is attempting to “steal without merit the ambition that Iran has been unable to realize due to tensions with the West”. According to Iranian strategists, Turkey’s goal of becoming a north-south corridor for energy will enable Turkey, along with its other characteristics such as its NATO membership, to become an important power on the global stage, and hence capable of placing limits on Iran. This is why, so the argument goes, it is in Iran’s national interest to retard such endeavor by countering Ankara’s influence in Iraq, which could be an alternative to Iran once it increases its hydrocarbon production, and indeed Central Asia and Caucuses.
There is also the whole issue of Israel-Palestine conflict and Tehran and Ankara’s differing opinions on how best to resolve it. While Tehran supports resistance through proxy groups, Turkey believes that peace between Israelis and Palestinians could be achieved on the basis of Arab Peace Initiative, and that it supports the two-state solution. As a matter of fact, Hamas’s recent decision to distance itself from Iran and Syria has made Tehran even more nervous about Turkey’s, and specifically Prime Minister Erdogan, rising popularity amongst the Arab public as the champion of Palestinians.
Add to these Iran’s frustration with the Turkish state decisions to host a NATO’s missile defence system on its territory and reduce its import of Iranian oil, and it then becomes clear why there is more to the recent rhetorical war between the two than a simple difference of opinion over the Syrian crisis. Differences over Syria, in other words, have only added fuel to the fire and brought into the open the hegemonistic rivalry of two non-Arab states over influence in the Arab world. How this tussle will play out and/or what its outcome will be is early to tell, but it is fair to suggest that the longer Assad maintains his hold on power the uglier Tehran-Ankara rivalry will get.