Two opposing coalitions in the Middle East define a rivalry that threatens to tear the region apart. As competition for dominance intensifies, the confrontation between Iran’s network of state and non-state actors, and a counter-front of traditional Western allies – centred on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel – has become the region’s central battle line.
Ankara is traditionally wary of Tehran’s ambitions in its immediate neighbourhood. But despite experiencing occasional shifts, their relationship has long been relatively stable. Since neither country views the other as posing an existential threat – and both perceive the Saudi-Emirati alliance as a threat – they have struck a modus vivendi as neighbours. This has enabled them to maintain political and economic ties even as they engage in proxy wars in Syria and competition in Iraq. Ankara’s and Tehran’s ability to compartmentalise their bilateral relationship has also allowed for continued cooperation in areas such as trade, energy, and tourism. However, there is a limit to how close they can become given their different political regimes and conflicting geopolitical ambitions.
Iran in Turkey’s near abroad
In Iraq and Syria, Ankara’s relations with Tehran will remain fraught with tension and contestation as each attempt to shape the countries’ political and strategic order in its favour. Turkey believes that Iran is attempting to position itself at the centre of a new Levantine order, spreading its influence into the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Ankara sees the dominance of pro-Iranian Shia groups (both socio-political organisations and militias) in Iraq, the Assad regime’s hold on power in Syria, and Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon as elements of an attempt to establish a belt of Iranian influence that stretches to the Mediterranean. Ankara fears that these sources of influence will damage its regional interests.
Despite joining Iran in Russian-sponsored talks on the Syrian conflict, Turkey has fought against pro-Iranian Shia militias on the ground in both Afrin and Idlib. Tehran, in turn, has taken a stand against Turkey’s Afrin operation and military expansion into Idlib, reflecting the broader Turkish-Iranian contest in Iraq and Syria.
But Tehran appears to be coming out on top in both countries, exacerbating Turkish fears. Adding to this anxiety is what Turkey sees as the national security challenge posed by the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has gained control of territory near the Turkish-Syrian border in recent years. These concerns prompted Turkey to launch in January 2018 a military operation in Afrin, which has succeeded in driving back the PYD. Much to Turkey’s discomfort, Iran has avoided confrontation with the PKK and its offshoot organisations across the region, and has maintained a ceasefire with the Kurdistan Free Life Party, a PKK-affiliated Iranian-Kurdish separatist group, since 2011.
Turkey regards Iran as having gained from the breakdown of states and dominance of non-state actors in its immediate neighbourhood. In the Levant and Iraq, political leaders are redesigning state structures to accommodate non-state actors, creating an environment more amenable to Iran – which has long cultivated links with such actors – than Turkey.
Turkey is starting to engage in the kind of militia sponsorship Iran specialises in as a way of projecting power in Iraq and Syria. Although Turkey has only limited experience with militias, the success of its cooperation with allied Syrian groups in Afrin demonstrated the potential of this strategy. But Turkey is likely to experience the downsides of working with such militia organisations as well.
In recent years, the focus of Turkey’s security efforts has shifted onto the Kurdish challenge, particularly the PKK-PYD nexus – as seen in its rejection of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s September 2017 independence referendum, as well as the intervention in Afrin. Iran also opposed the referendum. However, in the long term, once the perceived Kurdish threat recedes, Ankara will likely resume its attempts to curtail Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. Although Ankara does not want Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons, it is most concerned about Iranian regional policies.
Opposition to the Saudi-led embargo on Qatar has prompted Turkey and Iran to partially coordinate their policies. Yet shared concerns on this issue and the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq should not be misconstrued as signs of an emerging Turkish-Iranian alliance. In reality, their responses reflected temporarily overlapping interests that do nothing to dispel their suspicions about each other’s underlying aims.
The contest over a new regional order
Turkey’s view of Iran is a product of not only Tehran’s actions but also those of other states. The policies of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Israel, and the United States are important to Turkey. Ankara is as, if not more, concerned about these policies than the perceived threat from Iran.
Turkey believes that the public animosity towards Iran shown by Israel and some Saudi-aligned Arab states (such as the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain) forms part of their search for a new regional order, which would involve the suppression of Islamist groups. For Turkey, the 2013 coup in Egypt and the embargo on Qatar vindicate this belief. Because the Saudi-Emirati partnership sees Turkey and regional political Islamic movements through the same lens, Ankara regards the Gulf Arab states’ search for a new regional order as directly or indirectly targeting Turkey and its interests. These considerations mean that Ankara is unlikely to join the anti-Iran front, despite Saudi objections. Moreover, for Ankara, the anti-Iran front could only roll back Tehran’s influence with the help of American military action – which would be catastrophic for the region. And Iran retains a significant capacity to undermine Turkey’s core national interests in its neighbourhood should it choose to do so.
Ultimately, while Saudi Arabia and Israel view Iran as an existential threat that they must confront, Ankara sees Tehran as a regional rival and neighbour with which it should compete and, at times, cooperate. This does not mean that Turkey would reject any plan designed to limit Iran’s influence in its neighbourhood, especially one that global powers such as the US and Russia devised. But, for Turkey to accept it, such a plan must exclude regime change in, or military confrontation with, Iran.
Galip Dalay is the research director at the Al Sharq Forum, senior associate fellow at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies, and a non-resident fellow at Brookings Institution, Doha. He previously worked as a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin and as a political researcher at SETA Foundation in Ankara.