Turkish and Iranian interests in the Middle East are increasingly at odds, especially in Syria and Iraq, according to a new report by the Rand Corporation. Turkish energy needs and massive Iranian oil and natural gas resources heightened levels of cooperation between the two countries during the last decade. But F. Stephen Larrabee and Alireza Nader argue that Tehran and Ankara are “rivals rather than close partners.” Ankara’s “main fear” is that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear arms could lead to a regional arms race, according to the report. Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition has especially strained relations with Iran, which has aided President Bashar Assad against the rebels. The following are excerpts from the report with a link to the full text at the end.
Relations have been strained by a number of issues. The most important factor contributing to the growing strains in relations has been Turkey’s support for the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syria is Iran’s only true state ally in the Middle East. Since 1979, the secular, Alawite-dominated, Baathist Syrian regime and Iran’s Shi’a theocracy have strongly supported each other. Assad’s downfall would be a serious strategic blow to Iran and could result in the growth of Turkey’s influence. It could also have a demonstration effect on Iran, strengthening internal opposition to the Iranian regime and deepening the current divisions within the Iranian leadership.
Iraq has also become a field of growing competition between Turkey and Iran. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq has created a power vacuum that Iran has attempted to fill. The sectarian conflict between the Shi’a and Sunni has drawn Turkey and Iran into the Iraqi conflict on opposing sides. While the Turkish-Iranian competition in Iraq is not as significant as the tensions over Syria, it could gain new strength with Assad’s downfall, leading to wide-spread sectarian violence that could be highly destabilizing.
The Kurdish issue has also emerged as a source of tension between Ankara and Tehran. The Turkish government suspects Syria and Iran of providing support to the main Kurdish insurgent group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. As the unrest in Syria has spread, the Assad regime’s control over the Kurdish areas along the Turkish-Syrian border has eroded, deepening Turkish anxieties that this will strengthen calls for greater autonomy among Turkey’s own Kurdish population and that Syria and, to some extent, Iran may use Turkey’s vulnerabilities on the Kurdish issue in an attempt to reshape Turkey’s policy toward the Syrian regime.
The Palestinian issue provides yet another area of rivalry between the two countries. Iran views its opposition to Israel as enhancing its popularity in the Arab world. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s assertive support for the Palestinians has stolen Iran’s thunder and has been an important factor contributing to the deterioration of Ankara’s relations with Israel.
Turkey and Iran are also potential rivals for influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. However, competition between Turkey and Iran in these regions has been muted. Iranian influence has been constrained in Central Asia and the Caucasus due to a number of factors, including Russia’s dominant role as a regional power broker.
Iran’s nuclear program has been a source of strain and divergence in U.S.-Turkish relations, especially as Turkey has attempted to play the role of mediator between Iran and P5+1 (the United Nations Security Council plus Germany). However, the differences between the United States and Turkey regarding Iran’s nuclear program are largely over tactics, not strategic goals. Turkey’s main fear is that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear arms could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. This, in turn, could increase pressure on the Turkish government to consider developing its own nuclear weapon capability.
Turkey’s approach to the nuclear issue will heavily depend on U.S. policy and the credibility of the commitment of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members to Article V of the Washington Treaty on collective defense. As long as Turkey feels that NATO takes seriously Turkish security concerns, Ankara is unlikely to rethink its nuclear policy. However, if Turkish confidence in the U.S. and NATO commitment to its security weakens, Ankara could begin to explore other options for ensuring its security, including the possible acquisition of its own nuclear deterrent. Thus, maintaining the credibility of the commitment of alliance members to Article V remains critical.