Turkey has been engaging in a war of words with Iran lately, as the United States and others are hardening their stance on Tehran, in a development that analysts say is not beneficial to Ankara.
“It is obvious that is connected with the new Middle East and Syria strategy of the Trump administration,” said Cahit Armagan Dilek, director of the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute.
Tension with Tehran arose after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Iran days ago of pursuing Persian nationalism and sectarianism in the region, starting a salvo of accusations by Turkish officials following talks with their U.S. counterparts earlier in the month.
During his visit to Bahrain, Erdogan claimed that Iran, without mentioning its name, is trying to disintegrate Syria and Iraq, and that Persian nationalism and sectarianism are at work in the two war-torn countries.
“We need to block that,” he added.
Turkey and Iran, regional powers dominated respectively by Sunnis and Shiites, have conflicting positions on Iraq and Syria.
Iran supports the Shiite-led Iraqi government as well as the Syrian regime, while Turkey only gave up last summer pushing for the downfall of the Syrian regime by means of supporting rebel groups.
Ankara has also strained its ties with Baghad which it criticizes for excluding the Sunnis from the government.
“Ankara’s desire to win the good graces of (U.S.) President (Donald) Trump who appears determined to treat Iran as a hostile power is one of the primary reasons for the Turkish government’s attitude,” remarked Faruk Logoglu, a former diplomat who held top posts in the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
The second reason, according to Logoglu, is Turkey’s assumption, for political and economic reasons, of the role of protector for the Gulf states including Saudi Arabia against Iran.
Both Turkey and the Gulf countries are concerned that Iran is seeking to carve out a Shiite crescent from Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria, a charge dismissed by Tehran as untrue.
In a show of support against Iran, Turkey deployed troops in Qatar last year.
The new U.S. administration sees Iran as a threat to the region and the world and placed new sanctions on it after Tehran tested a new ballistic missile at the end of January.
Dilek, a former staff officer, did not think it makes much sense to accuse Iran of trying to create a Shiite crescent.
Maintaining it is the U.S. and the Gulf countries that created the Islamic State (IS) with a view to designing the region, he said, “The current attitude of Turkey and the U.S. is a move aimed at cutting off Iran’s link with Bagdad and Damascus in an operation to be carried out under the guise of cleaning Raqqa of IS.”
Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and new CIA chief Michael Pompeo were recently in Turkey to discuss details of a military cooperation against IS in Syria as well as possible regional scenarios.
Turkey says it is ready to join the U.S.-led coalition to drive IS from its stronghold of Raqqa if Washington agrees to exclude the Kurdish fighters, whom Ankara sees as terrorists, from the Raqqa campaign.
About a week before leaving for a tour of three Gulf countries — Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — President Erdogan had his first phone call with U.S. President Trump.
While Pompeo was in Turkey, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim had a phone call with U.S. Vice President Michael Pence. “We are opening a new page with the U.S. administration,” the premier told reporters days later.
The Turkish government had some serious divergences of opinion on Syria as well as some other issues with the previous U.S. administration headed by Barack Obama.
It is significant that Turkey leveled its criticism against Iran after talks with U.S. officials and during a presidential visit to Gulf countries, Dilek stated.
Noting President Trump takes a harsh stance against Iran, he said, “This attitude of Turkey is indicative of the new U.S. policy and demonstrates that Turkey will again act together with the U.S. (in the region).”
In its initial response, Iran dismissed Erdogan’s criticism, underlining that its forces are in Iraq upon the request of the Iraqi government to fight against terrorist groups.
The statement issued by the Iranian Foreign Ministry also said, in an apparent veiled criticism of the Turkish position on Syria and Iraq, that support offered to terrorist groups in the region irrespective of neighboring countries’ sovereignty is a cause of concern.
Turkey has been militarily involved in Syria since August last year based on an understanding with Russia, a staunch ally of the Syrian government.
Turkey’s ruling party, the Islamist Justice and Development Party, has refused, however, to cooperate with the Syrian government as it does not see the regime as legitimate.
The Turkish government recently announced that the towns captured by its troops, backed by some rebels, on the Syrian soil will be handed over to local people rather than the Syrian government forces.
Yasar Yakis, a former foreign minister of Turkey, also felt the agreement reached during the phone conversation between Erdogan and Trump may have played a role in the Turkish government’s hardening attitude toward Iran.
Noting Ankara and Tehran have been rivals for centuries, he stated, “The present war of words is a part of the regional power struggle, but this war has to be managed with tools of silent diplomacy.”
Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s current top diplomat, took where Erdogan left off and accused Iran of undermining stability by pushing for a Shiite-dominated region while speaking at the recently-held Munich Security Conference.
On the same occasion, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir described Iran as the “biggest supporter of terrorism.”
What is unprecedented in Turkey’s attitude is that Ankara is now openly accusing Iran of pursuing expansionist aims, observed Logoglu.
“In any case, the anti-Iranian stance of President Trump will override all other factors in shaping the flow of events in the Middle East,” he added.
Cavusoglu’s remarks drew harsh reaction from Tehran, which claimed that Turkey’s attitude is an expression of frustration resulting from the failure of its regional policies.
Ali Akbar Velayeti, a top advisor to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Turkish troops in Syria and Iraq will either get out of their own accord or would be kicked out.
Both Syria and Iraq have already made clear that they are unhappy with the presence of Turkish troops on their territory, while Turkey apparently feels a Shiite belt would cut it off from the Sunni Arab world.
Retaking Raqqa, which is already surrounded by Kurds-dominated forces, could pave the way for physically separating the Shiite Iraqi government from Syria.
Turkey has also troops near Mosul in northern Iraq, where they have trained some Sunni Iraqis and Kurdish Peshmerga forces to fight IS.
Ankara wanted its troops to be part of the campaign launched by the U.S.-led coalition against IS in Mosul last fall, but was rejected by Baghdad.
Turkey’s ruling party was much criticized at home for offering support until last year to rebel groups, including radical ones, in the Syrian civil war. It is widely argued the Turkish government had hoped to put in place in Syria a government dominated by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.
The current Syrian regime is known for its mainly Alawite character. Alawism, estimated to represent around 12 percent of the population in Sunni-dominated Syria, shares some common traits with Shiism.
Turkey cannot ignore Iran’s efforts to increase its sway in the region, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said last week, while noting Turkey does not want any escalation with its neighbor.
In a latest salvo from Iran, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused Turkey of making a fuss in a bid to influence U.S. policies after having failed in its plans regarding the region.
All the analysts, while speaking to Xinhua, advised against an escalation of tension between the two regional powers, stressing that such an eventuality would serve the interest of neither.
“Turkey cannot benefit from a policy of tension with Iran or with any other country,” said Yakis. “Now that Turkey is isolated in the international arena, it needs friends more than ever.”
“The refined art that is called diplomacy is more necessary in such circumstances,” he stressed.
Turkey, whose economy has been showing signs of deterioration for some time, would suffer economically as well in case of a strained relationship with its eastern neighbor.
Turkey is highly dependent on Iran as far as energy is concerned. The country buys nearly 20 percent of its natural gas and around 30 percent of its oil from Tehran.
After the Obama administration softened economic sanctions against Iran in early 2016, Ankaran and Tehran had expected to triple their yearly trade volume to 30 billion U.S. dollars.
Dilek was worried that the U.S. plan is to pit Sunnis against Shiites in a regional confrontation. “Such a sectarian-based move would result in a war between the Shiites and Sunnis,” he warned.
Both Yakis and Lologlu seemed to be somewhat optimistic about the prospect of Turkey and Iran settling their differences without heightening the tension.
Noting the rivalry between the two countries had its highs and lows throughout history, Yakis said, “Sometimes it becomes sharper, then it goes down and stabilise at some level and a new modus vivendi settles in. The present altercation is one of them.”
“Further escalation could have dire unintended consequences in the region and beyond,” warned Lologlu. Enditem