Depending on who you ask, Turkey and Iran — and their predecessor polities — have either been at war or at peace for the last five centuries. These wildly differing versions of history are, not surprisingly, a product of the complicated and often contradictory relationship that exists between the two states today. Since Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, geopolitical and sometimes sectarian tensions between Ankara and Tehran play out alongside ongoing, and even deepening, economic ties. Just yesterday, Turkish and Iranian diplomats met with their Russian counterparts in Moscow for tense discussions aimed at overcoming at least some of their stark differences on the Syrian civil war. Surely these sessions were made more tense by this week’s assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey.
In the coming years, Turkey’s relationship with the United States may well depend on whether it comes to be viewed as Iran’s partner or rival. As Turkish-Iranian relations have become more strained, some in Ankara have already tried to curry favor in Washington by presenting Turkey as a potential ally in combatting Iranian influence. If nothing else, emphasizing Turkey’s anti-Iranian credentials served as one way to deflect criticism directed at Ankara for its often counterproductive role in the fight against ISIL. Now, with Trump’s election, Ankara’s appeal to American Iran-hawks might become even more effective. If U.S. policy, for better or worse, takes a dramatically more confrontational approach toward Iran, could anti-Iranian solidarity provide a new foundation for rebuilding the U.S.-Turkish relationship?
In the event of a U.S.-Iranian showdown, the challenge will be for Turkish President Erdogan to convince his potential partners in Washington that Ankara is really on their side. Given the longstanding ambiguity of its relationship with Tehran, Ankara must realize that confrontation between Iran and the West could leave Turkey in a difficult position. Since the Iran-Iraq War, during which Turkey profited from its position of neutrality by providing an economic lifeline to Iran, Ankara has always remained pragmatic about the benefits a working relationship with Iran can bring. In 1996, during a period of increased bilateral tensions, the Turkish government signed a $20 billion natural gas deal with Iran. After the AKP came to power, a series of high-profile visits between Turkish and Iranian officials accompanied further efforts to enhance economic cooperation. With this in mind, Ankara was eager to help resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program in order to ensure that sanctions did not harm Turkish business interests. Indeed, even when sanctions were in place, members of the AKP colluded to help Iran evade them through an extensive and corrupt gold-trading scheme.
Yet, despite this history of economic collaboration, Turkey’s relations with Iran have appeared increasingly strained the past month. In early December, the Turkish government publicly accused an Iranian drone of participating in an attack on Turkish forces in northern Syria in which three soldiers were killed. Longstanding accusations about Iranian support for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) have also resurfaced along with charges of neo-Persian imperialism. Then, with anger running high over the fall of Aleppo, Ankara carefully directed the brunt of its outrage at Iran. Turkish officials argued that while Russia and Turkey had negotiated an agreement to facilitate the evacuation of civilians from rebel held areas, Iran sabotaged the plan and in doing so, facilitated Assad’s war crimes.
Under the title “Iran derails Aleppo cease-fire,” a recent piece by the editorial board of Turkey’s English language, pro-government paper Daily Sabah offered a preview of Ankara’s anti-Iran pitch to the Trump administration. In language calculated to echo right-wing criticism in the American press, the editorial accuses Obama of having “outsourced part of the counterterrorism effort in Syria to Iranian-backed Shiite militias” and “allowed Tehran to get away with a rogue nuclear program.” It then calls on Washington and the Trump administration to “acknowledge Mr. Obama’s mistakes” and “take necessary steps to put an end to Iranian expansionism in the region.” And with both Ankara and Washington now seemingly committed to improving relations with Russia, the editorial also calls on Putin to reconsider his relationship with Iran and Assad.
Amidst strained relations with its Western allies, the collapse of anti-Assad forces in Syria and an ongoing, even escalating, conflict with the PKK, Ankara would certainly benefit from finding a place in a new anti-Iranian axis — especially if it could convince Washington to treat the PKK as an arm of Iranian influence. Looking at the incoming administration, Turkish policymakers would not be alone in concluding that a new era of U.S.-Iranian hostility is coming. Trump has declared his support for tearing up the nuclear deal, while many of those around him have taken even more hawkish positions on Iran. In addition, for those in Washington who see Trump’s eagerness to accommodate Russia as a threat to America’s stature and credibility, confronting Iran offers a potential route for re-establishing it.
From Ankara’s point of view, the ideal might be joining a renewed American effort to contain Iran without ever quite having to confront Iran either. Depending on how American policy develops, Turkey could well get its wish or perhaps more confrontation than it bargained for.
Nick Danforth is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He completed a PhD in Turkish History at Georgetown University and has written widely on Middle Eastern politics.
Image: Geographicus Rare Antique Maps, Public Domain