Turkey and Iran Face Off… But Pull Their Punches

As their regional ambitions grow clearer every day, relations seem to be deteriorating between the two former empires that dream of recovering their lost grandeur. And Turkey is obviously responsible for the climate of tension with Iran.

Hassan Rohani and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arrive for a joint press conference at the Turkish presidential complex in Ankara, December 20, 2018
Adem Altan/AFP

“Zero problems with our neighbours”: the famous strategy developed from that remark made by former Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has gradually become “zero neighbours without a problem”. And now Iran has been added to the list of countries which view Turkey’s foreign policy with suspicion and worry.

Until now, the relations between the two countries—whose commercial exchanges are mostly confined to energy products—have managed to maintain a state of non-belligerency and even non-aggressivity, despite the difference of their positions in the Syrian conflict, Turkey opposing the Damascus regime while Iran is one of its backers.

Mounting tension in Sinjar

But over the past few years, things have got worse, first in the Sinjar region of Iraq and then with the outbreak of the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh. The town of Sinjar, to the North-West of Mosul, is sacred for the Yezidis, a Kurdish minority whose religion is rooted in ancient Persian mythology. In 2014, the ISIS Jihadists, who look upon them as kuffar (evildoers), massacred thousands of Yezidi men and took the women and children into slavery. The armed wing of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) liberated the region from the jihadists and helped the Yezidis form autonomous militias. After which, the PKK settled in Sinjar as it has already done on Mount Qandil, in North-east Iraqi Kurdistan.

In January, as part of Turkey’s efforts to establish good relations with Iraq and the regional government of Kurdistan (KRG), the Turkish Defence Minister, Hulusi Akar made trips to both capitals. In the wake of these visits, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a warning with regard to Sinjar: “We might show up there suddenly one night”. This possibility was all the more credible as on 10 February 2021 the Turkish army strayed into the Gara region (also in northern Iraq) in a bungled attempt to rescue prisoners of the PKK, military personnel, and members of the Turkish secret service. A fiasco which ended in the deaths of thirteen prisoners.

In response to that latent threat of a Turkish intervention, Ashab al-Qahf, a Shi’ite militia backed by Tehran, demanded that “Turkey cease its hostile actions: we were expecting Turkey to complete its withdrawal from Iraqi territory, not that it increases its intrusions.” In the event of further incursions, the militia threatened Turkey with reprisals by posting a video showing Arash missiles made in Iran.

From the Iranian point of view, the Sinjar region is of strategic importance because of its huge project of a freeway from Tehran to the Mediterranean, meant to run through Diyālá Province 60 km north of Baghdad via Sinjar to Syria. Once the border has been crossed, the highway will go on to Qamishli and Kobaneh, proceed North to Alep and terminate at the Latakia Harbour.

The Turks, on the other hand, perceive Sinjar as a crossover point in northern Iraq between the Qandil mountains, rear base of the PKK, and the Syrian Rojava, held by the Syrian Democratic Forces of which the Kurdish Democratic Union Party is the main component. Nineveh governorate is also a territory where the PMU, a Shi’ite militia, has a substantial presence. To intervene there with its aviation, drones, and ground troops as they did at Gara would enable the Turks to kill two birds with one stone. But by hitting the Shi’ite militia there they would also antagonise Iran.

The poisonous issue of Nagorno-Karabakh

During the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Erdoğan sent several hundred mercenaries to fight alongside the Azeris as well as several TB2 drones provided by his son-in-law’s Baykar company. By so doing, the Turkish president pressed his advantage in the Caucasus by creating a corridor between the Azeri enclave of Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan proper, thus obtaining a kind of territorial continuity and a fast connection between the Black Sea and the Caspian and facilitating the flow of Azeri gas to Europe via the Trans-Anatolian pipeline (TANAP). Nor did he miss the opportunity to indulge in some neo-Ottoman rhetoric, arguing that Turks and Azeris belonged to a single nation, divided between two States. Now a large Azeri minority lives inside the Iranian border. They represent 25% of the total population and have a major role in the State apparatus, the army, the economy, the culture, and the religion. In aid of his rhetoric, Erdoğan read a poem which the Iranians perceived as an ode to Iranian Azerbaijan, inhabited by a large Turkish-speaking minority. Whence a flood of protest from Tehran.

The Turkish president, who holds full executive powers since the 2017 constitutional reform, is militarily involved in the region’s high-intensity conflicts (Libya, Syria). The concept of “Blue Homeland” (Mavi Vatan) developed by some of his admirals, has led him to strengthen his battle fleet (its most recent manoeuvres in the Aegean Sea were dubbed “Blue Homeland - 2021”) and to challenge the contours of Greece’s hydrocarbon-rich economic exclusion zone (EEZ) in the Mediterranean, As for the recent triumph of his candidate in the election to the presidency of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)—not recognized by the UN—it allowed him to put paid to any hopes of reunification and opened the way to outright annexation.

The creeping annexation of the Afrin region

Turkey’s territorial ambitions already became evident in 2018. “Operation Olive Branch” had taken the Turkish Army, allied with some members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), 30 km. inside Syrian territory. There they took possession of the canton of Afrin, using violent methods of ethnic cleansing against the Kurds who have lived there since the 18th century, driving 130,000 of them to find refuge in Alep. Arabs and Turkomans have moved in to replace them and those that remain have become a minority in their own country. “The Turkish flag is flying on buildings, schooling is in Arabic and Turkish, the electric grid and the phone network are connected with the Turkish systems. Imams and preachers in the Mosques are appointed and paid by Turkey’s Direction of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). The Turkish pound (lira) has become the currency for all business dealings.”1 Little by little Afrin Canton is moving towards an administrative dependency on the Hatay governorate in Turkey, i.e., the former Sanjak of Syrian Alexandretta which was handed over to Ankara in 1939 with the approval of France and the UK.

Erdoğan has his eye on Iraq as well. Not only the Sinjar region but also cities like Mosul and Kirkuk. In 1925, the League of Nations vote that made the Mosul vilayet part of Iraq rather than Turkey was disputed by Mustafa Kemal, the first president of modern Turkey, and then by his successors. Erdoğan, in those moments of excessive hubris of which he is so fond, and under the heading of “the lost homeland” regularly alludes to that disputation, still insists that Mosul, a Sunni metropolis, now in ruins since its liberation from ISIS, rightly belongs to Turkey, as does Kirkuk, Iraq’s largest petroleum centre.

Kirkuk whets Turkey’s appetite

Moreover, as Fehim Tastekin points out in Al-Monitor: “The AKP has tended to look upon Mosul in Ottoman Administrative terms, i.e., as the Mosul Vilayet, comprising the districts of Mosul, Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyah. Or, in other words, Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Dohuk, the three regions which nowadays constitute Iraqi Kurdistan, and that used to belong to the Ottoman province of Mosul.”

This “viewpoint” readjusts significantly the old dispute over the Turkey-Iraq border-line, including Iraqi Kurdistan. Simply put, Ankara regards the dismemberment of Iraq as an option. The issue has been seriously examined twice. In 1958 when Iraq and Jordan envisaged the union of their two countries and in 1991 when the United States launched operation “Desert Storm” against Saddam Hussein. But both times, Washington failed to approve.

Besides which, in Mosul the Iranians have the upper hand today thanks to the presence of an Iraqi Shi’ite militia, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) which, after taking part in the liberation of the city in 2018, have settled there. Considering this situation, the Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif declared in a tweet on 21 February: “We refuse to accept Turkey’s military presence in Iraq and Syria and we think it is a bad thing”. Which, despite the restrained diplomatic phrasing can only be understood as a firm warning to Ankara.

Dreams of grandeur in Central Asia

In 2020 Turkey reactivated “Pan-Turkism,” a project for the unification of the Turkish-speaking peoples of Central Asia, inherited from Enver Pacha, War Minister of the Ottoman Empire during WW1, a rabid nationalist and racist, one of the instigators of the Armenian genocide. Enchanting his crowds of admirers with allusions to the “Red Apple” (Kizil Elma). Erdoğan knows he is brandishing the symbol par excellence of Turkish domination in Central Asia. On the basis of a pseudo-ethno-linguistic homogeneity, he is referring to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kirgizstan, and Kazakhstan.

In 1992, via the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States (Turk Isbirligi ve Kalkinma Ajansi –TIKA), a government agency, Turkey tried to launch a partnership involving the cultural, educational, commercial and energy policies of all these countries. Moscow, considering that these countries which were once part of the Soviet Union, still belong to its private preserve made its opposition noticeably clear to Ankara. Forty years later, however, the balance of power has shifted. And today’s “Pan-Turkism” (which omits the Uyghurs, for with China it’s “Business is business”) is attempting this comeback by looking beyond the five aforementioned countries, posing as potential protector of the Crimean Tartars and Balkan Muslims.

As we can see, the ambitions of the “Sultan of Istanbul” are not modest. They also serve to conceal a difficult domestic situation combining inflation, a drop in the value of the Turkish pound, student protests, reinforced security measures, and the gaoling of MPs belonging to the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). He also has to cope with a drop in popularity with the presidential election looming ahead. And the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara are both perfectly credible potential candidates.

As if in counterpoint to this explosive situation, the exaltation of religiosity as an element of national identity proceeds apace and in 2019 found a perfect symbol in the construction—for 90 million dollars—of the Çamlica mosque, the largest in Turkey and, more recently still, in the conversion of the Church of Hagia Sophia into a place of Muslim worship, thus reviving memories of 1453 when a sultan ruled the entire Ottoman Empire and the Greek Orthodox basilica first became a mosque.2

Iran is counting on its allies

Faced with this expansionist surge of its bellicose neighbour to the North, Iran is already involved in a tug-of-war with the US which refuses to lift its sanctions so long as Tehran refuses to renegotiate the terms of the 2015 Vienna agreement (JCPoA). Consequently, it does not have the same military and diplomatic elbow room as Ankara to assert its ambitions to become an undisputed regional power—and, as it has been demanding since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, to be recognized as the benchmark “homeland” of Shi’ism.

Moreover, while Turkey’s invasive policies (the second-largest NATO army) are the target of insubstantial reprimands from Washington, Iran is accused of supporting terrorism and is the object of severe measures of retribution.

For all that, Tehran is not lacking in strategic allies (like Armenia and China), nor in groups indebted to it (such as the Iraqi Shi’ite militias, the Lebanese Hezbollah or, to a lesser degree, the Yemeni Hutis), nor supporters (like the al-Assad regime in Syria), nor auxiliaries (like the Afghan Hazaras of Shi’ite allegiance, fleeing the war in their country and who, when they are young enough, find themselves forcibly enrolled in the Iranian army when they seek refuge in that country). Iran also has good relations with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) one of the two organisations sharing the control of Iraqi Kurdistan. And as Iran has been happy to point out, it has no quarrel with Azerbaijan.

A difficult situation on the home front

On the other hand, the regime has to grapple with protest movements in both its Baluchistan province and that of Khuzestan, as well as in its Kurdish province, one of the country’s poorest, on the border with Iraq and Turkey. In those areas the regime carries out mass arrests of activists advocating democracy and women’s rights and targeted killings of kolbar, those small-time poverty-motivated smugglers, crossing borders to sell their goods or bring others back.

Moreover, the economic situation due to the U.S. embargo and to serious problems of mismanagement remains a source of worry on the eve of a presidential election to replace Hassan Rouhani, the object of sharp criticism. At present writing, there are no less than seven contenders in the running to succeed him, all of them “conservatives”, all criticising more or less severely the outgoing president for his lack of determination.

There was a time when Turks and Iranians liked to remind us that there had been no war between them for 300 years. Today, that 300-year truce has been eroded and everything points to its imminent end.

1Press release by the Institut kurde de Paris, 26 February 2021.

2TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular government made the building into a museum which it remained until 2018.