Turkey and Iran: Partners in a New Middle East

Article Summary
The Syrian crisis has helped focus regional attention on Turkey and Iran, two Middle East powerhouses that seem locked into a collision course. But the region is large enough to accommodate both states’ spheres of influence, writes Sarkis Naoum, and pragmatic considerations are likely to prevent confrontation.

Relations between secular Islamic Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Iran is worrying the Arab and Muslim World. For a long time, most Arab countries have been in an as-yet indirect confrontation with Iran, because it poses the largest threat to them. Nevertheless, given the successes of the Iranian nuclear program, the Arabs sense imminent danger, which they lack the means to confront. Therefore, they have adopted two methods to minimize and remove [this danger]. First, they have asked for Western and US protection. The Arabs received this protection because most of these countries situated on the periphery or in the heart of the Arab World are floating on a lake of oil that is needed by the entire world. The second approach [adopted by the Arabs to minimize danger] has been to support the anti-Iranian movements fighting Iran for ethnic or sectarian reasons, whether [based] inside Iran or in in neighboring countries like Iraq, in which Iran has become the most influential player. The Arab Spring offered these Arab states the perfect opportunity to confront Iran by supporting the rebels against [Tehran’s] Syrian ally, which has the potential to push Iran into a defensive position.

In recent years, a third strategy has emerged. Most Arab states - especially those under [direct] threat from Iran - thought that Islamic Turkey could protect the Sunni Arabs from the “Persian” Shiites. They believed that Turkey could play that role because it is trying to take on a larger regional role, based on its important military and economic powers, its diplomacy and NATO membership, in addition to its majority Sunni population.

Were the Arab Strategies Successful?

The Arab states were able to guarantee US and Western protection, and they are confident that these countries will not stay silent if Iran persists in its nuclear ambitions and political strategy in the Middle East, because they have already imposed harsh sanctions on Iran. The Arabs believe that the West will resort to military intervention if Iran does not back down or engage in a serious dialogue with the West, in order to protect the interests of all involved parties. Additionally, the Arabs - along with most of the world - are seriously supporting the revolution of the majority of Syria’s people against Assad’s regime. They are also supporting Iraq’s Sunnis to resist Iran and its Shiite allies, in order to keep it at a distance from the immediate borders of the oil-rich Arab Gulf.

Concerning Turkey, the Arab states are still depending on it, and they recognized its full readiness to help, but not in a military fashion, especially in Syria. Turkey has been standing on the sidelines, despite its continued humanitarian - and not-so-humanitarian - help to the rebels, in an unofficial capacity. However, the Arabs and other international parties’ expectations of a Turkish-Iranian clash - of benefit to them - has not materialized.

Of course, Turkey has not become Iran’s enemy, nor its ally. They are two important neighboring countries that have ambitions of a greater role in the extended region, and they each know that they could play that role because the region is large enough [to support the ambitions of both countries]. According to knowledgeable diplomatic sources which follow the Iranian-Turkish dialogue, the two countries have taken the decision to build good, diversified bilateral relations and avoid any clashes. Additionally, Iran informed Turkey of the importance it places on Assad’s regime, and asked Ankara to understand this position and avoid any direct military involvement [in Syria]. 

On the other hand, Turkey explained that it is a secular country, but the majority of its citizens are Sunni Muslims; thus they will by no means tolerate oppression or aggression against fellow Sunnis in countries within the Iranian [sphere of] influence. Turkey pointed out that it considers Iraq of equal importance to it [as to Iran], not only because there are large Sunni and Turkmen populations, but because these groups live in areas close to the Arab Gulf. This said, Turkey does not appreciate the threat posed to the Gulf as a result of Iran’s expanding influence [in that area], whether direct or indirect. Iran has also been made to understand that Turkey accepts its peaceful nuclear ambitions but refuses any military nuclear options, especially given that Istanbul [would be] within the range of Iran’s missiles. These positions do not indicate fear or apprehension; on the contrary, they point to [Turkey’s] desire to see a stable Middle East, given that it knows its own strengths. These strengths are based on its diverse capabilities, its relations with the Arab world and and within the international sphere, and its NATO membership.


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