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Turkey vs. Iran: New Grudge Match Shapes the Middle East

Not long ago it appeared Ankara and Tehran were the best of friends. Today that situation is different. From Iraq to Lebanon and across the Middle East, Turkey and Iran are locked in a zero sum competition for influence and power. Here’s the story from the FT:

Iran has criticised Turkey’s secular system of government as an unsuitable example for countries in the Arab spring, in the latest sign of growing tension between the two regional powers…

Rivalry between the two neighbours is intensifying as they lock horns over Ankara’s decision to host a Nato missile defence base and the fate of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, as well as the future direction of the Arab spring…

The two countries have also been competing in Iraq, where last year Turkey championed the cause of Iyad Allawi, the secular Shia who sought to be prime minister, the post eventually retained by Nouri al-Maliki, who was given more support by Iran.

The relationship — perhaps contest is a better word — between Turkey and Iran is shaping a new era in Middle Eastern politics.  Today, there is little they agree on and little room for anything but political barbs tossed back and forth.

This is partly a replay of Ottoman era politics.  The new Turkish Islamist government is eager to revive Turkey’s historical role as the leading power of the region.  (Two hundred years ago the Ottoman Empire ruled everything from the Danube to the modern Iran/Iraq boundary and across North Africa as far as Algeria.)  As Arab nationalism has failed and declined, Sunni Islam has replaced it as the leading political movement in much of that world.  Arab nationalism was both secular and anti-Turkish; Arab nationalists regarded the Ottomans as an imperialist great power.  But if Arabs look at the world through a religious lens, Istanbul used to be the seat of the Caliph.

For Iran, this is a bitterly disappointing turn of events.  Sunni Turkish Islamism trumps any attempt by Shi’a Iran to ride the Islamist wave to power in the region; at the same time, the conflict in Syria looks increasingly like a struggle for power between Alawite allies of Shi’ism and Iran and Sunnis looking to Turkey.  The fall of Assad will also tip the balance away from Shi’a Hezbollah to the Sunnis in Lebanon.

The disappointment and the outrage in Tehran is deep; for thirty years Iran proclaimed itself the speartip of resurgent Islam; when the Islamist wave finally crests, it looks to be driving Iran back in on itself.

Iraq, part of the Ottoman Empire until the British conquered it in World War One, could end up being the most important strategic arena for the new competition.

Some would see this conflict as a sign of US decline in the region, but that remains to be seen.  Since World War Two, regional power struggles have tended to reinforce rather than limit Washington’s power.  At the minimum, a regional balance of power allows Washington the option to throw its weight from one side to the other and prevent the emergence of a single dominant rival.

We shall see, but one thing looks increasingly clear.  If the mullahs get the bomb, the Turks will want one too.

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  • Cunctator

    Another good column and on a subject that few people are paying any attention to. But, as I wrote yesterday, I am rather pleased that someone is poking a stick at Turkey’s backside. Erdogan and his ilk are insufferably arrogant and strutting, with little evident inclination to work to defuse problems that they are not placed in charge of. Western liberals refuse to see Ankara as anything other than an example of Islamic democracy (and the government is far more authoritarian than that label would suggest) and an unfairly treated ally (i.e., its naturally racism that keeps them out of the EU). In recent years, however, Turkey has been more of a problem than a problem-solver in regional affairs.

    So, new tensions with Iran could serve Western interests very well. It will help to divert Turkey and might, if we are lucky, put some spine back into the Turkish military that might then rein in the “mullahs” in Ankara.

  • Ibrahim Mcforest

    There is one factor in this whole Turkey vs Iran scenario that is fascinating about Turkey’s responsibility towards the protection of the people of Gaza, without Iran, and their propping up of Hezbollah,and Hamas, Israel would over-run the region with impunity, without any western caution. The United States is a hypocrite when it comes to Israeli aggression. So Turkey must understand the unintended consequences of a Syria under the leadership of anyone, other than Bashar al-Assad. To balance the power of the region, there must be some sort of collateral damage, that can be considered fair, and if there is one that could be defended, it is a Syria with Assad at the helm for now.

  • JKP


    It’s funny you say Iraq could be the most strategic new arena under competition between the two. Funny because it’s not ‘new.’ Remember, the Ottomans and Safavids fought over Iraq for centuries. This is the reason I’ve argued now for a couple years that Turkey and Iran cannot be friends, and that last year’s cosiness wouldn’t last.

    The recent tensions between Iran and Turkey are just a continuation of the Sunni-Shi’ite struggle that have defined their relations for most of 500 years. Moreover, to close Iraq observers, the struggle between the two regional powers for influence in the country has been festering for a few years now. It’s nothing all that new.

  • Joseph Cotton

    The arrogance and ambition of Turkey of becoming a leader of the Sunnis in the area and reinstate its islamic role will trigger a violent reaction from Saudi Arabia.
    The kingdom will never accept that the Turkey propagate its ‘moderate’ view of Sunni Islam. It is not a surprise that, beyond the media campaign the US is doing to antagonize Iran and Saudi Arabia, they met very recently.
    As much as Saudi Arabia dislikes Shia, it dislike even more any powerful sunni leader who tries to take their place. Turkey is been pampered by the US and taken as an example for the future of the emerging islamic. Saudi Arabia does not like that and they also reproached the US to have dumped Mobarak too easily.
    Saudi Arabia will probably join forces with Iran to counteract Turkey and its ally Qatar in their increasing support for the Moslem Brotherhood domination in the Arab countries..
    Because of this rivality, there is a chance that the regime of Bashar al Assad survives.

  • Kris

    Let me see if I’ve got this right, Ibrahim:
    (i) Israel is Evil, and we should sacrifice Syria’s population in order to stop its putative imperialistic aspirations.
    (ii) Israel is so weak that two militias are sufficient to prevent its bloodthirsty legions from over-running the region.

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