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Iran and Turkey: Two-bit players in a deadly game

After a brief diplomatic honeymoon, mostly sustained by propaganda and wishful thinking, relations between Iran and Turkey appear to have hit a new low, with both trading accusations and threats. Tehran claims that Ankara harbors neo-Ottoman imperial ambitions with dreams of dominating Iraq and Syria. Ankara accuses Tehran of harping on sectarian themes to create a mini-empire in the Levant with access to the Mediterranean.

It is too early to tell where this new tension might lead, but one thing is certain: In opting for confrontation, both sides are acting against a tradition of good neighborliness that dates back to the early 20th century.

In the checkered history of Iran’s relations with neighbors in the past century, ties with Turkey always stood out as an exception. By the end of the 19th century the two nations, exhausted by endless wars against each other over the previous 200 years, were geriatric empires further wounded by decades of struggle against European colonialism and Russian imperialism, to which both had lost vast chunks of territory.

In the 1920s, a new Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and a new Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi decided to transform the enmity of the past into a friendship for the future by forging the Saadabad Pact for non-aggression and mutual defense against outside enemies.

The two nations later forged the Baghdad Pact, which included the newly independent Iraq. After Iraq fell under a pro-Soviet military regime, CENTO was formed, another military pact that included Pakistan and Britain, with the US an associate member.

By the end of the 1950s, Iranian-Turkish relations were plain-sailing. A Turkish ambassador in Tehran could easily feel he was on a prolonged holiday, while his Iranian counterpart in Ankara was often a senior figure sent there for a comfortable retirement.

Even the seizure of power by Iranian mullahs in 1979 did not shake the solid foundations of decades-old relations. While almost all nations quickly imposed or re-imposed visas for Iranians, Turkey kept its doors open to visitors and refugees from Iran.

More importantly, perhaps, Turkey has helped Iran beat the many sanctions imposed against it by Western powers because of its involvement in terrorism and the alleged development of nuclear weapons. Iran has reciprocated by helping Turkey keep its turbulent Kurds in check and prevent Iraqi Kurds from full secession, which could cause regional ripples with Kurdish minorities.

Only a few a months ago, some Western observers were talking about a new Tehran-Ankara-Moscow axis to reshape an alliance that could fall apart even before it is fully put in place. This has now happened. It seems that with former US President Barack Obama gone, Turkey has decided to re-tie the knot with its old American ally. Ankara has announced a set of new sanctions against Russia, including a ban on ships from Russian ports in the Sea of Azov.

Ankara seems to believe that the US is poised to return as a serous player in the Middle East, in which case Turkey would have no need for dubious alliances with an old enemy such as Russia or a fickle friend such as Iran.

Amir Taheri

At the same time, with Obama gone, the prospect of the US forging a new alliance with Iran under the “moderate” faction of the mullahs is no longer taken seriously. The new Trump administration may be all at sea regarding its foreign policy, but is unlikely to pin any hope on Tehran changing behavior under a “moderate” faction that was largely a figment of Obama’s imagination.

With the US likely to make a comeback as a nation-state pursuing its global interests, rather than a vehicle for Obama’s ideological illusions, American power might once again become a major factor in stabilizing a turbulent region.

Donald Trump’s behavior notwithstanding, Ankara seems to believe that the US is poised to return as a serous player in the Middle East, in which case Turkey would have no need for dubious alliances with an old enemy such as Russia or a fickle friend such as Iran.

Current Turkish thinking is that once President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has achieved his goal of imposing a new constitution via a referendum, he will have a free hand to seek an important place for Turkey in a new regional grouping that will include the US and its Middle Eastern allies.

With Pakistan also starting to come off the fence, prospects of a broad alliance spanning the “arc of crisis” from the Subcontinent to the Atlantic Ocean become more serious. That could leave Iran more isolated than ever, and more dependent on Russian goodwill.

But Iranian policymakers know that Russia would never accept Iran as an equal partner. By assuming exclusive control of the Syrian dossier in support of President Bashar Assad’s faction, Russia hopes to deprive Iran of the cards it had to play with in the war-torn Arab nation.

If, as Ankara now seems to think, the US returns to the Middle East in a leading position, the most Turkey could aspire for is the position of second or third fiddle. This means saying goodbye to any neo-Ottoman dreams that Erdogan might have nurtured.

And if Russia manages to secure a side-chair at the putative banquet to reshape the Middle East, the last thing President Vladimir Putin might want is to have a devious Iranian mullah tagged at his tailcoat.

• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He worked at, or wrote for innumerable publications and published 11 books.

— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.