By Kamran Bokhari, Director of Strategy and Programs
On a tactical level, Turkey and Iran — the two major Muslim-majority powers in the Middle East — may align on issues where their interests converge, but strategic differences remain. The two countries are historic rivals locked in a competition for influence in an Arab-majority region that is in meltdown mode. Kurdish separatist ambitions throughout the region will only destabilize the region further and likely intensify the rivalry between Ankara and Tehran. U.S. interests necessitate the adoption of a balance-of-power strategy with the two competitors — a strategy that will allow Washington to manage an increasingly chaotic region.
Much is being made of a Turkish-Iranian alignment these days. Both countries came out strongly in opposition to the independence referendum held on Sept. 25 by Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Reinforcing the perception of alignment is a visit by the chief of the general staff of the Turkish armed forces, Gen. Hulusi Akar, to Tehran on Oct. 2 — six weeks after his Iranian counterpart Maj.-Gen. Mohammad-Hossein Baqeri visited Ankara. More important, however, is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Tehran on Oct. 4.
Visits like these are common, and most of them represent fleeting moments in a long history of relations between nations. They cannot and do not override countries’ national interests based on geopolitical realities and the accompanying imperatives and constraints. In fact, most of the time media portrayals of these visits tend to mask existing competitions by shrouding them in diplomatic niceties and platitudes. Meanwhile, both sides see these visits as part of an effort to manage their competing interests.
The Levantine-Mesopotamian Battlespace
For now, Turkey and Iran’s shared geopolitical real estate in the Middle East is limited to the Levantine-Mesopotamian landmass that runs from the Mediterranean Sea to the Zagros Mountains. Formally, this area contains the nation-states of Iraq and Syria. In reality, those nation-states (as they have existed since independence from British and French colonial rule) have been shattered into numerous fiefdoms controlled by different factions. The remnants of the Iraqi and Syrian regimes, several Kurdish factions, and countless rebel groups (including Daesh, or ISIS, and al Qaeda) control territory within Iraq and Syria. The Turks and Iranians are all too familiar with this dizzying kaleidoscopic landscape.
It is this same area where the predecessors to both the contemporary Turkish and Iranian republics, the Ottoman and Safavid imperial dominions, battled one another centuries ago. There is one critical difference, though. Five hundred years ago, the Turks had the upper hand because all of the Levant and a sizable portion of Mesopotamia were part of the Ottoman Empire, allowing the Ottomans to block the Persian Safavids from expanding into the Arab world. Now, the situation is almost completely reversed.
Iran currently has the upper hand in both Syria and Iraq. Tehran’s influence in Syria (and by extension Lebanon) goes back to the early years after the founding of the Islamic Republic in the wake of the 1979 revolution. Iraq also fell into Iran’s orbit after 2003, when the United States effected regime change and enabled pro-Iranian Shiite forces to dominate the post-Baathist state. In more recent years, the outbreak of the armed insurrection in Syria in 2011 and Daesh’s cross-border caliphate that arose in 2014, together helped Iran deepen its influence in both countries as Tehran provided military assistance to both Damascus and Baghdad.
Iran, with its predominantly Shiite population, has always been a minority within a Sunni-dominated region. Yet despite this, Iran has been able to block Turkey from playing a more significant role in either of the two Arab countries on Ankara’s doorstep. Turkey finds this situation unacceptable and thus has an imperative to roll back Iran’s influence. In fact, with the ongoing melee in the Arab world — particularly the chaos spreading out from the wars in Syria and Iraq — Ankara feels an increasing need to try and bring order to the region. Turkey sees itself as the defender of Sunni interests against an Iran-led Shiite bloc, especially at a time when the Arab states in the region have been unable to push back against the Iranians and their allies.
That said, Turkey faces numerous constraints. Despite the common Sunni bond, the Turks face Arab resistance to Turkish regional hegemony, as is evident from the behavior of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Furthermore, Iran began pursuing its regional ambitions several decades ago, whereas Turkey is just now entering the fray. Iran’s proxies have the advantage in Iraq and Syria, whereas Turkey’s proxies remain weak and divided in comparison. In addition, Ankara’s Sunni allies in Syria face stiff competition from both Daesh and, to a greater extent, al Qaeda.
The Syrian regime has succeeded in seriously weakening the rebels, and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi central government has retaken Sunni lands that had been lost to Daesh. These circumstances have added to Iran’s geopolitical strength and made it harder for Turkey to compete. Russian involvement in Syria is another obstacle for Turkey, but perhaps the biggest problem Ankara faces are the Syrian Kurds. Turkey considers them a major threat, given that their main political principals (the Democratic Union Party and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units) have close connections to Turkey’s Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Kurds & a Turkish Breakout
Thus Syria, from Turkey’s perspective, is a minefield that needs careful navigation. This is why Ankara has been negotiating with Moscow and Tehran to establish the “de-escalation zones” to sustain truces between the forces allied with the Syrian regime and its opponents in certain parts of northern Syria. Turkey needs time to help revive the anti-regime forces, especially after their rout in Aleppo last December. At the same time, Turkey is trying to rebuild its own military capabilities following the massive purge that thinned out its armed forces in the aftermath of the failed July 2015 coup.
One area where Turkey could expand its footprint is Iraq. Although publicly the Turks opposed the KRG’s bid for independence, Ankara does not consider the situation a zero-sum game. As a landlocked entity that the Iran-backed Shiite government in Baghdad has tried to strangle, the KRG has become heavily dependent on Turkey during the past decade. Turkey is the only available route for the KRG to export its hydrocarbons. Moreover, the KRG is a market for Turkish exports to the tune of several billions of dollars.
More important, the Iraqi Kurds are not allied with the PKK. In fact, Irbil has aligned with Ankara against the Turkey’s Kurdish separatist movement. Therefore, the idea that a sovereign Kurdistan emerging from Iraq will threaten Turkish territorial integrity is exaggerated. There is a reason why Turkey’s opposition to the KRG referendum – rhetoric aside – has remained measured. And contrary to popular perception, Turkey and Iran are not on the same page as far as the Iraqi Kurdish secessionist bid is concerned.
Iran is far more opposed to the KRG’s independence than Turkey is. This would explain why Tehran has begun wargames on its border with the KRG and cut-off trade. From Iran’s point of view, Iraqi Kurds’ gaining independence not only emboldens Iranian Kurds but also weakens Tehran’s allies in Baghdad. The Iranians also know that a future Kurdistan emerging from Iraq would be a vassal state of the Turks, allowing Ankara to finally regain a foothold in Iraq.
Iran is thus trying to use the Kurdish threat to influence the Turks and make sure they do not soften on the KRG. That said, Tehran realizes that its interests diverge from Ankara’s on the KRG. Therefore, Iran also will leverage disputes between Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds, especially over territory, in order to create problems for Turkey. Given demographics in the long run, Turkey is likely to gain influence in northern and western Iraq via Kurdish and Sunni supporters, whereas Iran’s influence will continue to be with the Shiite-majority southern half of Iraq, including Baghdad and areas north of the capital.
Iran’s goal is to block Turkey’s path to the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf region. The Islamic republic is thus likely to focus the bulk of its efforts on enhancing the position of the Syrian regime, especially by helping Damascus’ military take back much of the territory that it lost to Daesh. Here Iran will also be working closely with the Syrian Kurds, who are in the lead of the effort to wrest back territory from Daesh. Just as Turkey is working with the Iraqi Kurds to counter Iran, the Iranians are working with the Syrian Kurds in an attempt to prevent Turkey from breaking out of the logjam that it faces in Syria.
This competition between Tehran and Ankara will continue for the foreseeable future. Although Turkey is a NATO ally and Iran is brazenly trying to dramatically reshape the Middle East, the United States would be wise to avoid taking sides. Washington will need to continue working closely with the Saudis and other Arab allies to keep the Middle East from becoming the pitch for a two-player game. The Trump administration needs to continue to improve relations with Turkey while bearing in mind that in the long-run the Turks seek regional hegemony, which may not necessarily be in our interest or that of the region. In the meantime, while it is important that Washington maintain the nuclear deal with Tehran, it must prevent Iran from taking advantage of the chaos in the Arab world. The United States can help safeguard regional stability by making sure that neither the Turks nor the Iranians gain a disproportionate amount of influence in the Middle East.
Kamran Bokhari is the Director of Strategy and Programs at CGP. He is also a senior analyst with the intelligence firm Geopolitical Futures, and a Fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
Image Credit: AP/Ebrahim Noroozi