The vacuum left by America's withdrawal from Iraq brings out an old power struggle.
In a recent interview with RT (Russian TV) Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, while in Beijing, called on Iran and Turkey to be included in the upcoming international meeting dedicated to ending the Syrian crisis. It is obviously clear to Lavrov, as it is to others, that Iran and Turkey have conflicting interests not only in Syria but elsewhere in the region.
In 2009 Turkey showed support for the regime of Iranian President Ahmadinejad despite the controversial reelection, and in 2010 Turkey voted against sanctions on Iran in the UN Security Council. But, Ankara has recently agreed to deploy a NATO missile early-warning system in south-eastern Turkey, which has infuriated the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The crisis in Syria has helped to expose the growing rivalry between these two nations and it is becoming apparent that whatever "honeymoon" that existed between the two nations in recent years is over. Between the 15th and 20th centuries, the sultans of Ottoman (Turkish) Empire and the shahs of the Persian (Safavid) Empire battled over territory and dominance in the Greater Middle East region. The Turkish-Persian rivalry is, in fact, the oldest power game in the Middle East. It now appears that this historical conflict (with relatively same-sized populations of 80 million) has taken on an added dimension: a clash between the Sunnis and Shias.
The decline of American influence in the Middle East under President Obama has intensified the power struggle between Iran and Turkey with both attempting to fill the vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Following the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk’s modern Turkey abandoned the Middle East in favor of the West, and it appeared as if this rivalry was over. Iran’s Shah Mohamed Reza also sought to modernize and “westernize” a decaying Iran. Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, who seemed to be bringing Ankara closer to Tehran has become increasingly resentful of EU posturing and has turned Turkey's foreign policy trust towards the Middle East. By becoming a Middle Eastern player once again, a resurgent Ankara has emerged as the natural challenger to the other key Middle Eastern actor: nuclear-power and hegemony-seeking Iran.
In the wake of the Iranian Islamic revolution, the Sunni-Shiite conflict intensified and with Iran’s attempts to destabilize Sunni Gulf leaders and other pro-Western Arab states, Turkey has emerged as a counterweight to Shiite Iran revolutionary and hegemonic ambitions. The “Arab Spring,” which brought the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to power, and might do the same in Syria, is also in many ways a Sunni-Muslim revolution, and Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Erdogan seeks to hitch a ride on it as the champion of Sunni-Islam. What we’re seeing is an attempt by both Erdogan and Ahmadinejad to win over the Arab world.
Yahya Rahim Safavi, top military aide to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei charged, according to Fars News agency that, “The Americans, Israelis, and some European and Persian Gulf nations, in particular Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have delegated Turkey the task of achieving their goal to weaken or topple Bashar al-Assad’s government or make it surrender.”
In Syria, a proxy war is being conducted between Iran and Turkey, with Iran arming its Alawite client state headed up by Bashar Assad of Syria, and Turkey aiding the opposition Syrian Free Army, comprised largely of Sunni-Muslim defectors from the Syrian army. Turkey serves as the key regional opponent of the Assad regime while Iran stands with the Assad regime and provides it with funds, arms, and military personal. It is also reasonable to assume that Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, has played a supportive role in Assad’s bloody crackdown against the largely Sunni-Muslim opposition.
If in Syria the conflicting interests of Tehran and Ankara are more glaring, in Iraq they are no less intense, albeit, through political if not military proxies. Although both Turkey and Iran opposed the Iraq war, they have supported opposing camps in successive Iraqi elections. Iran’s dominance in Baghdad with the help of the Shiite-Muslim Nouri al-Maliki is countered by Turkey’s ever closer relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil (Northern Iraq).
In the parliamentary elections of 2010, Turkey supported the seemingly secular Sunni dominated Iraqiya party led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, while the Islamic Republic of Iran backed the State of Law Coalition, which included Maliki’s Islamic Da’wa Party, and other Shiite Islamist groups that came under the umbrella of the National Iraqi Alliance Bloc. Maliki, however, managed to stay Prime Minister despite coming up short by two seats (less than the Iraqiya Bloc) and by including the radical pro-Iranian Shiite Sadrists and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.
The Sunni-Shiite fault lines are clearly visible in Iraq. Baghdad is allied with Iran in support of the Alawite regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, and has blocked the Arab League attempt to impose harsh sanctions against the Assad regime. Maliki has in fact labeled Turkey “a hostile state.” Erdogan, for his part, has accused Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki of acting “self-centered” and inciting tensions between Iraq’s Shiite majority and the Sunnis and Kurds.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu inaugurated his policy of “Zero Problems” with Turkey’s neighbors. It has led to a short lived rapprochement with Iran and Syria that included a pact to prevent Kurdish demands for cultural and political self-determination.
In Lebanon, another area of contest between Shia and Sunni Islam for dominance, FM Davutoglu had this to say, “Lebanon is like a small Middle East, with many communities like Christian, Sunni, Shia, and Druze. Therefore, the survival of Lebanon as a stable, prosperous state is a reflection, indicator of regional peace.” Iran however, has provided its Shiite co-religionists and especially the Hezbollah with major financial and military resources, helping Hezbollah to become the dominant party in Lebanon at the expense of the other communities including the Sunnis, Druse, and Christians.
Iran and Turkey compete for influence in Central Asia and the Caucuses, particularly in the bordering states of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The presence of 20 million ethnic Azeris in Iran, considered Southern Azerbaijan by the Baku (Azerbaijan’s capital) government has caused a great deal of friction between Tehran and Baku. Iran has tried to stem secessionist tendencies encouraged by the pro-western Baku government. Since the 1990’s, Iran has sided with “infidel” Christian Armenia in its conflict with majority Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan. Turkey on the other hand, has a close cultural and linguistic association with Azerbaijan, and a painful past with Armenia. Turkey has backed Azerbaijan politically, and has strong commercial ties with it.
Turkey’s subtle appeals to pan-Turkism in Central Asia, supposedly in Iran’s backyard has angered the Iranians who like Turks, seek to be the center and leader of the Muslim world. Both Turkey and Iran are pushing their model of an Islamic republic, and central Asia has become a focal point in this contest.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s attempt to bring Iran and Turkey together on Syria and other issues clashes with the ambitions of the two Middle Eastern behemoths. Iran and Turkey are vying for leadership in the greater Middle East just like in past times, and it is unlikely that their interests will converge. One mustn’t forget history – it tends to repeat itself.
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