Turkey’s Evolving Policy toward Iran

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu’s official call to his Israeli counterpart was a rarity since the Erdoğan-Peres confrontation in Davos in January 2009. Erdoğan began to initiate overtures toward Israel, opening the door to the exchange of ambassadors to normalize diplomatic relations in the near future and inviting Israeli President Isaac Herzog to visit Turkey. From Ankara’s perspective, repairing ties with Israel is necessary for economic and strategic reasons. Similar to its strategic reasoning for rapprochement with Gulf Arab states, Turkey aims to break its isolation in the eastern Mediterranean and increase its bid for natural gas exploration. Erdoğan expressed his readiness for pipeline talks with Israel, claiming that Turkey remains the only viable route for Israel’s gas exports to Europe.

The Turkish government also counts on the fact that warming relations with Israel may offer lobbying power in Washington and therefore a step forward in courting the Biden Administration. Israel’s price tag for warming relations, however, may demand another shift in Turkey’s foreign policy: changing course in Ankara-Tehran relations. According to Israeli officials, Turkey has become exceptionally cooperative on security matters “in a very uncharacteristic way.” Most recently, Turkish intelligence thwarted an Iranian assassination attempt of an Israeli businessman, Yair Geller. On another occasion, the Turkish government cracked down on an organization that was orchestrating Iran’s “kidnap plots” against Iranian dissidents in Turkey.

Turkey-Iran: Neither Friends nor Foes

A scholarly discussion to envisage Turkey’s post-Erdoğan foreign policy is growing. There is no doubt that such inquiry is a useful exercise in assessing Turkey’s long-term commitments against the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) priorities. Yet, the latest developments indicate that Erdoğan may have already started to implement some policies that were anticipated to take effect in a post-Erdoğan era, such as softening criticism of Israel and opening up on the Gulf.

In the long-term perspective, Turkey-Iran relations have long been shaped by geopolitical drivers, which made both players neither friends nor foes—but, rather, rivals. The competition impetus, however, needs to be analyzed closely as Turkey’s “bitter competition” with Iran in the mid-1990s became a “benign competition” with Erdoğan’s rise a decade later. It was not surprising to detect chemistry between Erdoğan’s AKP and the Iranian regime, as nascent political Islamism in Turkey was significantly shaped by cultural repertories—from religious music to dramaturgical performance—and was inspired by the 1979 revolution. Ankara’s helping hand to Iran in the face of international sanctions was a substantial departure from the traditional Turkish role as NATO ally, marking a shift toward an “anti-systemic” alliance with Tehran.

The trajectory of the Syrian civil war, however, revealed the limits of Turkey-Iran cooperation. Rising sectarian identity politics have put the two in opposing camps; hence, the pendulum began to swing back from benign competition to bitter rivalry, not only in Syria but also in Iraq. Souring relations were most evident in the Turkish government’s accusations against Iran of trying “to create two Shia states in Syria and Iraq” and calling on the international community to “stop” Tehran’s “dangerous” activities. Iran’s response was equally harsh, warning that Turkish soldiers in Syria and Iraq could become targets unless they were withdrawn.

The pendulum did not fully swing back to bitter competition, mainly due to the controversial policies of the Trump Administration. First, President Donald Trump’s attempt to form an anti-Iran axis under Saudi leadership included an ambitious goal to target all forms of political Islam associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The blockade of Qatar, for example, sent shock waves to Ankara, which naturally pushed Turkey to align with Iran. Despite Trump’s personal chemistry with Erdoğan, the US administration did not perceive Turkey as a partner against Iran but rather as an aggressor against American interests in the region. Second, with Russia’s rising influence in shaping the Syrian war, Ankara has sought to pursue its interests through the Astana talks with Moscow and Tehran—as an alternative to Washington’s road map—which reduced Ankara’s tensions with them.

Despite Trump’s personal chemistry with Erdoğan, the US administration did not perceive Turkey as a partner against Iran but rather as an aggressor against American interests in the region.

President Joe Biden’s Middle East policy, however, poses a different picture for Turkey. It appears that political Islam is no longer regarded as a main threat in the region, and the Gulf Arab states ended the Qatar blockade with a bid to repair ties. The very perception of US withdrawal from the region has already created its own reality with the outcomes of shifting priorities by regional powers. With an increasingly isolated Turkey confronting the hopeless trajectory of US-Turkey relations, such shifting sands provided a political opportunity and face-saving exit for Erdoğan. The Turkish government has already begun to exploit the opportunity by breaking the ice with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. Given that Erdoğan does not have the upper hand due to financial troubles at home, the Israel-Gulf axis will seek to reorient Turkey against Iran’s regional ambitions. If successful, their efforts may swing the pendulum again toward aggressive competition between Turkey and Iran, especially in Syria and Iraq.

Competition over Syria and Iraq

Syria is an important arena in which to watch the Turkey-Iran competition. The Assad regime’s goal to regain international recognition may soon turn into a reality as Gulf Arab states have begun to change their policies toward Syria. With opening diplomatic channels to Damascus and offering financial incentives, the Gulf countries aim to decrease the influence of Iran over the Assad regime—a goal that is shared with Israel. Although the path for full normalization between Turkey and Syria appears improbable, Turkey is likely to be the next candidate that will find a way to a direct line to Damascus.

Turkish and Iranian interests stand in a full-fledged clash in Syria. The eruption of violence between Iran-backed militias and Turkey-backed forces in Idlib remains a clear possibility. For Ankara, Iran’s control of the Syria-Iraq border via Shia militias or Kurdish proxy forces is a threat to Turkish national security. In the case of American military withdrawal, Iran appears to be the dominant player to fill the vacuum—potentially supporting the Kurdish militant groups that fight against Turkey. Betting that the United States will not deploy its forces in northern Syria forever, Turkey’s military plans are shaped by the fear of Kurdish separatism and Iran’s potential leverage over the Kurds.

In the case of American military withdrawal, Iran appears to be the dominant player to fill the vacuum—potentially supporting the Kurdish militant groups that fight against Turkey.

The growing influence of the Iran-linked Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Kirkuk and Mosul has put Turkey at an utter disadvantage in competition over Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders with Syria. It should be remembered that Turkey’s accusations that Iran supports the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) go back to the 1990s. Despite the fact that both Ankara and Tehran are adamantly opposed to an independent Kurdistan, supporting each other’s enemies is part of their playbook. For example, in December 2020, Erdoğan did not hesitate to spark tensions over Iran’s large ethnic Azeri minority, which led to Iran’s summons of the Turkish ambassador in Tehran. Iran perceives that Turkey and Israel are plotting against Iran and Russia in Azerbaijan, and official Turkish statements do not help to ease Tehran’s worries. Most recently, Erdoğan stated that Iran should not continue tensions with Azerbaijan as it is concerned with its ethnic Azeri population, recommending that Tehran act with a “sound mind.”

To put it simply, Iran’s access routes to the Syrian Kurds disturb Turkey’s long-term projections. The Turkish-Iranian border competition is best observed in the Sinjar region, which connects Iraq and Syria. The Turkish military makes frequent air raids in Yezidi-populated Sinjar where a Yezidi militia group, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), operates as a PKK affiliate. In November 2015, Sinjar was liberated from the Islamic State by a coalition of Kurdish forces including the PKK, which perceived the region as vital for border operations across Iraq and Syria. Iran’s interest in Sinjar has become most evident after PMF militias took over the region in October 2017, expelling Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) forces. Since then, the PKK and PMF remain in control of the territory, as YBS and other PKK affiliates later joined the PMF umbrella.

Toward Escalation in Tensions?

The administration change in Washington along with shifting regional dynamics have already resulted in an upward spiral of conflict escalation. In April 2021, increasing Turkish military attacks in Sinjar were answered by PMF militia rocket fire against the Bashiqa Turkish military base in northern Iraq, killing a Turkish soldier. To deter Turkey, the PMF sent three additional brigades to bolster the already substantial militia forces in Sinjar. Major Iranian-backed PMF factions—including the Badr Organization, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH)—made threats of war in case Turkey pursued further escalation. Most memorably, the AAH leader Qais al-Khazali went on Iraqi television in an effort to shape public opinion against Turkey and stated that Turkey represented “more of a threat to Iraq than the United States”—and therefore, he would personally fight if Turkey were to pursue its “neo-Ottoman desires” in his country. Ankara opted not to escalate the crisis.

In the past few weeks, however, Turkey has intensified its military campaign with air attacks in Sinjar, according to local sources. Following the bombardments, a Turkish military base was attacked with heavy rocket fire once again, on February 3rd. Al-Khazali renewed his warnings and claimed that the Iraqi resistance “will teach the Turkish occupation tough lessons and force them out of the pure land of Iraq.”

The KRG in the Crosshairs

Although Washington may perceive Ankara’s bold moves against Iran favorably, an emerging potential development will need closer scrutiny due to its high cost to American interests: Iraqi Kurdistan becoming a militarized playing field as a byproduct of Ankara-Tehran rivalry. Indeed, the Kurdistan Regional Government may no longer remain an island of stability. In order to save US-Turkey relations after the disputes over US support for Syrian Kurdish groups, Washington’s formula was to give a green light to Turkish military operations in northern Iraq. Turkey has vigorously seized the opportunity. In recent years, Turkish military zones in Iraqi Kurdistan expanded dramatically with the establishment of new military bases. In 2021 alone, Turkey added 12 military bases, raising the total number to around 40. More than 5,000 Turkish troops are deployed in the region; in addition, Dahuk governorate in northern Iraq has become a testing ground for Turkey’s latest drone technology in a preemptive war against Kurdish rebels.

In order to save US-Turkey relations after the disputes over US support for Syrian Kurdish groups, Washington’s formula was to give a green light to Turkish military operations in northern Iraq.

Turkey’s strong expansion in Kurdistan has forced Iran to take unprecedented steps. Like Turkey, Iran has used the threat of Kurdish separatism as a pretext to justify its increasing military presence in northern Iraq; thus the KRG has found itself in the crosshairs. It is facing not only increasing Turkish pressure to collaborate with Ankara against the PKK, but also mounting Iranian aggression as a result of its submissive relations with Turkey. Iran accuses the KRG of granting “safe haven” to Kurdish opposition groups that target Iranian soil, adding that both the United States and Israel provide material support to bolster these groups. Over the past year, Iran-backed militias not only targeted American forces in Irbil with drone attacks but they also doubled down their operations in the region.

The widely shared perception of US withdrawal from the Middle East is an important factor that will put Turkey and Iran at loggerheads. Both regional powerhouses seek opportunities to fill the vacuum. Due to its complicated relations with Kurdish groups across Iraq and Syria, the United States is unlikely to commit full support for the Turkish bid. To be sure, Turkey’s recent openings with Gulf Arab states and Israel will guide the trajectory of Ankara-Tehran relations. Will US plans regarding the Iran nuclear negotiations be shaped gradually, or torpedoed completely, by Washington’s regional partners? In either case, the Turkish card will certainly loom large on the table.