Iran and 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 NATO -- drawing close to a
resurgent theocratic Iran whose nuclear program and geopolitical ambitions
present a full-frontal challenge to the established international order.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad holds hands with Turkish
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Iran and Turkey signed a nuclear
fuel-swap deal in Tehran on May 17.
Suspicions that Turkey is abandoning the
Western orbit for a closer alignment with its Muslim Middle Eastern neighbors
were reinforced last month when the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan,
flew to Tehran to sign a nuclear fuel-swap deal -- brokered along with the
Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva -- aimed at blocking further UN
sanctions against Iran's uranium enrichment program.
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 its 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.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul (right) meets with
Ahmadinejad in Istanbul on June 7.
"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 nuclear
"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
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
Revolutionary Guards 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 $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 such.
"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,
"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
"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."
Copyright (c) 2010 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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