After Ankara blamed Tehran for pursuing a sectarian agenda and destabilising the Middle East, diplomatic tensions have escalated between Turkey and Iran, this past week.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Iran of resorting to “Persian nationalism” by trying to split Iraq and Syria, while Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, criticized what he called Iran’s “sectarian policy” aimed at undermining Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. At the Munich conference on February 19, Cavusoglu said, “Iran is trying to create two Shia states in Syria and Iraq. This is very dangerous. It must be stopped.”
Iran summoned the Turkish ambassador in response to these remarks, and warned Turkey that its patience “had limits”, and if such statements continued, “it will not remain silent”.
Ankara sought to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad while Tehran, along with Russia, backed his administration, making Turkey and Iran opponents in Syria. In Iraq, Turkey claims to have an “historical responsibility” to protect the country’s Sunni and Turkmen minorities from Iran-backed Shia militias who are in the region to fight ISIL. However, Iran, alongside Iraq’s government, views Turkey’s involvement and military presence in the country as an “incursion“.
Yesilada explained, “Turkey acts as the protector of Sunnis in the region, while Iran wants to build a Shia circle of influence all the way from Tehran to Lebanon, so it is inevitable for these two regional powers to clash.” He said that as ISIL is steadily losing territory in Iraq and Syria, a significant power vacuum is forming along Turkey’s southeastern border. There is a clash between Iran and Turkey over who will be the dominant force in the area.
“ISIL is about to leave the stage for good, and Turkey is extremely worried about its replacement. If it doesn’t act immediately and forcefully, Iran-backed militias, Bashar al-Assad or the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group Turkey considers to be a terrorist organisation, can take over territories previously controlled by ISIL.” Yesilada said, adding, “Turkey does not want another enemy at the gates, so it is making its position known to Iran, clearly and loudly.”
Iran, meanwhile, is actively working towards making sure its allies keep control or the area, and ending Turkey’s ongoing military presence in Iraq and Syria, analysts said.
A senior foreign affairs adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, recently stated that Turkish troops should immediately retreat from Iraq and Syria or the people would “kick them out“. However, Iran experts in Turkey claim that Tehran is alarmed by Turkey’s presence in Syria and Iraq.
Erdem Aydin, an expert on Iran at Istanbul’s Bogazici University, told Al Jazeera, “Iran is extremely disturbed by Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation in Syria and its military presence in Iraq’s Bashiqa. Iran views Turkey’s military presence in these countries as a significant obstacle in front of its desire to extend its influence in the region.”
Aydin, who is also a foreign news analyst and editor for CNN Turk, made it clear that Iran wants to cut Turkey’s efforts to create a Sunni controlled safe-zone in northern Syria at its roots. “The escalation of diplomatic tensions between Iran and Turkey came after President Erdogan completed a week-long tour of the Arabian peninsula. We have reason to believe that Erdogan asked his Saudi and Gulf allies to finance the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria during these visits and Iran was of course disturbed by this development. “
Yesilada added that, “It is also possible that the Gulf states asked Erdogan to adopt a more contentious attitude towards Iran in exchange for providing financial assistance for the safe-zone.”
Analysts believe that US president Donald Trump‘s aggressive attitude towards Iran, and the perception that he may be willing to support the creation of a Turkish-controlled safe zone in northern Syria, may also have played a role in the escalation of tensions between Tehran and Ankara.
“It looks like Erdogan realised Trump is going to be a lot more aggressive towards Iran compared to his predecessor, so he decided to act up against Tehran to secure US support for the safe zone,” Yesilada said.
Aydin added that Russia’s recent rapprochement with Turkey, and its disagreements with Iran over Syria may be significant in the future of Turkey’s relations with Iran. “Russia and Iran are having differences of opinion regarding the future of Syria,” he said. “Russia is viewing Assad as an ally, but is not insistent about him staying in his role as Syria’s president. Iran does not want Assad to go anywhere, but Russia, on the contrary, may easily sacrifice him.”
Yesilada believes that, “Russia is ready to get out of Syria. It is content with its victory on the ground. So it may choose not to be on Iran’s side to support Assad against Turkey.”
Still, analysts point to the vast economic ties between the regional rivals and believe this will prevent a significant confrontation.
Aydin told Al Jazeera that, “90 percent of Iran’s natural gas exports go to Turkey and Turkey imports 20 percent of its natural gas from Iran. Regional politics may cause tensions between the two countries, but in the light of their strong economic ties, I don’t believe the recent escalation in diplomatic tensions is going to lead to a serious confrontation.”
Although he argued that Turkey may be ready to take the economic blow to protect its regional interests, Yesilada said that economic ties between the two countries “cannot be overlooked”.
“It is true that Turkey is buying a lot of natural gas from Iran, and given that the Islamic Republic does not care too much about the international law, it may decide to close down the valves to teach Ankara a lesson,” he said.
He noted that Turkish businesses had been investing heavily in Iran following its nuclear deal with the US. “Yet Turkey might still be willing to face any economic threat and do everything necessary to stop Iran from extending its influence further in the Middle East, because any other scenario will be politically too costly for the country.”