Iran, Turkey: Friends today, rivals tomorrow?
By Robert Tait
It is the friendship Western policymakers wish they could have prevented:
Turkey - secular, Western-leaning, and a key member of the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization - drawing close to a resurgent theocratic Iran whose
nuclear program and geopolitical ambitions present a full-frontal challenge to
the established international order.
Suspicions that Turkey is abandoning the Western orbit for a closer alignment
with its Muslim Middle Eastern neighbors were reinforced last month when
Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Tehran to sign a nuclear
fuel-swap deal - brokered along with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da
Silva - aimed at blocking further United Nations sanctions against Iran's
Coming on the back of flourishing trade ties, the move - ultimately
unsuccessful - was seen as a manifestation of Erdogan's growing affinity for
Iran and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whom he had previously described as "a
very good friend". The image of a new Tehran-Ankara axis was further enhanced
by Israel's deadly interception of a Gaza-bound Turkish aid flotilla on May 31,
which led to the deaths of nine Turks and drew international condemnation. The
incident created the impression of a united Turkish-Iranian front against
Israel and in support of Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza.
The growing warmth is a far cry from the frosty, mutually suspicious relations
that endured for years between the two neighbors following the 1979 Islamic
revolution which ousted the Western-backed shah from power in Iran.
Yet, according to some analysts, there may be a sting in the tail.
Far from being the gateway to a long-standing alliance, Turkey's new engagement
with the Middle East and vocal support for the Palestinians could trigger
Iranian suspicions and eventually restore the formerly competitive relationship
between the two countries.
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst with the MEEPAS think-tank in Israel,
believes Turkey's new Middle East-centered foreign policy - which includes
rapprochement with Iran's close ally, Syria - is a threat to Tehran's desire to
be the Islamic world's dominant power.
"Both countries are rivals for the same title, which is leader of the Islamic
world," Javedanfar says. "And the Iranians have a set of economic and political
advantages to offer any country who wants to side with them, and the Turks have
another set of advantages which are far more than the Iranian ones.
"I can best describe it as the Turkish government being able to offer business
class seats to any potential customer who wants to ally itself with Turkey, and
the Iranians can offer a coach or economic class. I think the majority of
people are going to be attracted to the business class rather than the other
one, unless they have to."
If that assessment comes as a relief to Western diplomats fretting over
Turkey's supposed defection, there may be a sobering corollary. Javedanfar
fears the results of any renewed Iranian-Turkish rivalry will be greater
efforts by the leadership in Tehran to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability.
"When it comes to economic power, when it comes to military power, when it
comes to diplomatic position, Iran is inferior to Turkey," Javedanfar says. "So
they are going to look at areas where they are superior and the only other one
where they can gain an edge over the Turks, one of the very few areas, is the
"Turkey is not a nuclear power. Therefore, Iran would have even more of a
reason and an excuse to become a nuclear power in order to gain an edge over
their Turkish rivals."
Likely launch pad
The prediction may seem far-fetched, yet hardly more so than an article
published earlier this year by the Jahan News website - believed to be linked
to the Iranian intelligence services - that identified Turkey as the likely
launch pad for a future war against Iran. Written by Farid Al Din Hadad Adel,
grandson of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the article asked:
"Which country can hope for the entry of its European and American friends into
the arena of war, if it enters into war against us? The answer is clear. Turkey
is the only option for the advancement of the West's ambitions."
The Islamic regime has a history of suspiciousness towards Turkey. In 2005, the
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps closed Tehran's newly built Imam Khomeini
Airport for "security reasons" because a Turkish company had been awarded the
contract to run it. The airport was only reopened after the contract was
canceled and awarded to an Iranian consortium. In the same year, the Turkish
mobile-phone operator Turkcell was stripped of a US$2 billion contract giving
it a stake in a private Iranian mobile network.
Murat Bilhan, vice chairman of the Istanbul-based think tank TASAM and who
served as a Turkish diplomat in Iran, believes continuing Iranian disquiet over
its Western neighbor has recently surfaced in its rejection of Ankara's offer
of mediation in relations with the United States. Even the recent nuclear swap
deal may have been accepted only because of Brazil's role, he suggests.
"Iran feels itself a little split off from the Western connections because it's
in the hands of Turkey," says Bilhan. "They feel rivalry, as a competitor, and
they would not like Turkey to be stronger than Iran. That's the feeling in
Iran, in Iranian statesmen, in Iranian decision makers, policy planners, and
"So Turkey, for Iran, is, in a way, not a threat but something to get along
[with], to share the same geography, not to create any problems, but not to be
Afraid of Iran
A further source of potential friction could be Turkey's increasing closeness
to Arab states in the Persian Gulf, most of which fear Tehran's nuclear
activities, Bilhan says.
"There are some contradictions in the Turkish position in the sense that Turkey
should be aware that the Arab nations in the Persian are too much afraid of
Iran and they just feel threatened by the Iranian existence and Iranian
ambitions in the region, especially their nuclear ambitions," Bilhan says. "So
when Turkey supports the Iranian position, it might contradict its own Arab
policy because the Arabs have enmity towards Iran."
Turkish officials argue that Turkey's geography and shared Muslim heritage make
it uniquely qualified in the Western alliance to win Iran's trust. In private,
they admit that negotiations with the Islamic regime can be fraught - citing
the Iranian political system's diverse power centers. They also say the two
countries still have important differences, notably over Iraq.
"We are not defending Iran, we are looking after our own interests" one Turkish
official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFERL. "We don't want to see
a nuclear Iran in the military sense at all. Our aim in that is the same as
other countries. It's just our approach that's different."
He added: "On Iraq, we don't see eye-to-eye with Iran at all. We want an
all-inclusive government in Iraq made up Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds, whereas
Iran only wants a Shi'ite government. We are not always in parallel with Iran
on many issues.
"But I don't think they should see us as a rival. The fact that we can talk to
almost everyone, in contrast to them, means Iran should use us to try and get
back into the international community. That's what we are trying to do."