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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Deteriorating Relations between Iran and Turkey

Filed under: Iran, The Middle East, Turkey

In recent weeks there have been significant signs of a rapid deterioration in relations between Iran and Turkey. This centers on growing Iranian resentment of the critical position that Ankara has adopted towards continued violent oppression by Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian security forces of that country’s popular uprising, while ignoring warnings from Turkey, the Arab League, and other countries to find a solution to the crisis. At the same time, Ankara has consented to stationing on Turkish territory a U.S. radar system which is part of the NATO anti-ballistic missile system shield. This development has generated extensive criticism in Iran, which insists that such a system compromises its national security.

 Certain voices in Iran claim that Turkey is unfit to play any role, let alone be at the forefront of the “Islamic awakening.” Nor should it be considered a role model for countries in the region, which are engaged in a struggle to liberate themselves from the yoke of Western superpowers, since Turkey plays into the hands of the West and, in effect, is affiliated with the Western camp rather than the true Islamic one. Iran has also expressed the extremely harsh criticism that the Islam of Turkey is a liberal Islam – actually “state Islam,” and not part of the true Islam as represented by Iran.

 A Power Struggle over Regional Hegemony

Turkey and Iran are engaged in a power struggle over regional hegemony, each attempting to use different Islamic and political models to shape and spearhead change in the region. Both are targeting the same public – the “Arab and Islamic street” – and both use the Palestinian problem and the attitude to Israel to their advantage. The Syrian crisis spelled the end of the Iranian-Turkish-Syrian honeymoon and is now straining relations and bringing latent rivalries to the surface.

 Turkey has already succeeded in its involvement in the Palestinian issue with the Gaza-bound flotilla. The recent expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador from Ankara and the severing of military links were perceived on the “Arab street” (and in Iran too1) as winning moves. Much to Tehran’s chagrin, the supply of Iranian missiles and other weapons to Hamas in Gaza and the training of Hamas forces remains far from the spotlight.

 Moreover, continued Iranian aid to Syria, despite the ongoing oppression, is causing Iran to lose respect both in the “Arab street” and among Palestinian organizations, whose members have been used on more than one occasion as “cannon fodder” in Assad’s struggle.

 At this stage, the Iranian criticism of Turkey emanates from the religious establishment and the conservative press, while the Iranian leadership – the President and other leaders – is currently refraining from joining in, but it is being published in the state-sponsored media.

“Liberal Islam”

Iran accuses Turkey of collaborating with Western efforts to overthrow the Syrian regime because of that regime’s determined adherence to the struggle against Israel and support of groups opposing Israel. Religious leader Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem-Shirazi censured Turkey, saying: “[Iran] did not expect Turkey to approve of arrogant powers and be at their complete disposal and to harm crisis-stricken Syria.”2 The former Chairman of the Supreme Council, Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, blamed Turkey for exploiting regional developments to further its own interests by promoting “liberal Islam”3 – a term previously applied in Iran to describe Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Shahroudi said that the West fears support from nations in the region for Iran and its ideological philosophy, so it is seeking to propose and promote “creative models of Islam” along the lines of the “liberal Islam” of Turkey to replace the true Islam as represented by Iran.

 Farhad Bashiri, a member of the Iranian Majlis and the Iran-Turkey parliamentary friendship group, said Turkey’s positions “in recent years have demonstrated only tenuous links to the foundations of religion and Islam, but it appears that such links do not have deep Islamic or religious roots.” He added that the Turks undoubtedly wish to revive the Ottoman Empire, and hence are capitalizing on the atmosphere created in the Islamic world to achieve their goals.4 Bashiri went on to say that Turkey is currently aligned with the West, which shows that there is no room for support of Islamic and anti-American movements in the Arab world according to the ideology of Turkish leaders. He claimed that by implementing Western policy, Turkey is undermining Islamic movements in the region.

“Anti-Missile Defense System in Turkey Is a Threat to Iran”

On the military front, Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi has stated that the imminent deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system in Turkey is planned to be used for aggression against the Islamic Republic and its interests. He said that “the West claims the radar system in Turkey is meant to confront Iranian missiles, but it should be aware that we will not tolerate any aggression against our national interests and any such attack will elicit a crushing response.” He added: “We believe that the presence of the Americans and Westerners in Islamic countries is troublesome and harmful and disturbs security in those Muslim states….We do not consider the presence of Western entities in any country, and especially Islamic countries, as something that serves the interests of those countries.”5

 Esmae’il Kosari, a member of the Majlis Committee of National Security and Foreign Policy, said that “the contradictory behavior of Turkey is not acceptable to the regional countries,” that Turkey’s decision to allow the installation of anti-ballistic missile radar is indicative of a double-standard policy, and stressed that Ankara lost the reputation and prestige that it had gained through its recent positions in support of the Muslim nations. A spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry said: “We think NATO’s objective in deploying military forces in the region is seriously suspicious….We think the stationing of NATO military forces would disrupt security in the region.” The Majlis Research Center last month published a study which determined that the deployment of an anti-ballistic defense system in Turkey constitutes a threat to Iran.6

 An editorial in the conservative newspaper Jomhouri-e Eslami, under the headline “Turkey’s Flexibility and Its Negative Outcomes,” claims that Turkey should not have agreed to make its border with Iran a hostile one. If Ankara believed that ingratiating behavior toward the West would serve its interests, the UN Palmer Report proved that all of its expectations and beliefs had completely collapsed. According to Jomhouri-e Eslami, Turkey appeared to have forgotten that it faced governments that easily deny reality and even claim the opposite. The article concluded that Turkish flexibility would result in a paradox and even an ambiguous deadlock. Turkish politicians would do well to make a concerted effort towards understanding reality and avoid making any more mistakes while withdrawing their tractability vis-à-vis NATO and Western plans.7

 An article on the “Iranian Diplomacy” website (which focuses on Iran’s foreign policy) says that while Turkey expected an apology from Israel, it was subjected to a “cold shower,” and estimates that with U.S. mediation, Israeli-Turkish relations will eventually return to their former status. If we examine all these factors, alongside Turkey’s consent to station NATO anti-ballistic missile radar umbrella on Turkish territory, it may be concluded that although Turkish foreign policy is looking to the East, in formulating its long-term interests and strategy it is in fact looking towards the West. Neither Turkey nor Israel really wishes to cut off relations, and Turkey will therefore continue to await some kind of go-ahead from Israel to continue relations. I do not believe that the tension between the two countries will be long-lasting, because cooperation with Turkey is important to the United States in light of events in the Middle East.8