This was historic for at least three reasons.
To start with, it was the first visit to Turkey by an Iranian chief of staff since the mullahs seized power in 1979. Before that, Iran and Turkey had been allies in the context of three military pacts.
The Saadabad Pact was the backbone of relations from the 1920s to the Second World War. The later Baghdad Pact, which also included Britain and Iraq, ended in 1958 with the Iraqi military coup. It was quickly replaced by the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), which fell apart when Shapour Bakhtiar, the Shah’s last prime minister for 27 days, took Iran out of the alliance to placate the mullahs leading their revolt in 1978.
These three treaties meant that the Iranian and Turkish militaries could develop wide-ranging and deep relations at all levels. Joint staff conversations were held every six months and hundreds of officers on both sides served in each other’s army, air force and navy in exchange programs.
Thousands of officers on both sides benefited from special classes in Turkish or Persian to extend the space of camaraderie, from high command to platoon levels.
With the creation of the Khomeinist regime, however, Turkey was suddenly transformed into “the enemy.” It insisted on keeping religion out of government, exactly the opposite of what Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, the founder of the new Iranian regime, preached.
Worse still, Turkey was a close ally of the American “Great Satan” and provided NATO’s second largest army. While Khomeini was engaged in the mass execution of Iran’s army officers, many fled to Turkey and were sheltered by their former CENTO allies. In 1983, Khomeini ordered the creation of a Turkish branch of Hezbollah to seek the overthrow of the secular republic in Ankara. And when the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) lost most of its bases in Syria after the capture of its leader Abdallah Ocalan, the Khomeinist regime offered the group a haven in Iranian territory.
A delegation to Ankara led by the Iranian military chief of staff surprised many, but it shows where the real power lies in Tehran.
Relations between the two neighbors deteriorated to the point that in the 1990s they became engaged in a number of minor border “incidents.”
Gen Baqeri’s visit seems designed to wipe the slate clean. It resumes the Iran-NATO military contact that was severed in 1979. Planned meetings at lower levels of the military on both sides are sure to extend and systematize contact, allowing NATO to gain a better direct understanding of the mindset of the Iranian military elite. NATO has had indirect contact with several Khomeinist officers for years, some through their relatives in Europe and North America. Now, however, the Turkish link provides an official channel to exchange information and messages.
The second reason the visit was historic is that it marks an understanding by both sides that they cannot hope to dominate the Levant region without acknowledging each other’s interests. While Tehran seeks space for its so-called revolution, Turkey fears that armed Kurdish groups might come together to carve out a state of their own in parts of Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
Kurdish aspirations are not the only cause of mutual concern. Ankara and Tehran are also worried about Russia gaining too much influence by exploiting the absence of a credible Western presence in the Middle East. Despite tactical alliances with Russia over Syria, both Turkey and Iraq still view Russia as the “near enemy” with a 200-year history of war and aggression.
Finally, Gen Baqeri’s Ankara mission is historic because it illustrates what some of us have been saying for years: the real power in Tehran is in the hands of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is increasingly relying on the military. People playing roles such as president and minister are often little more than singers of the parts given to them in his operetta.
As always in history, there is some irony here too. While President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is dismantling the Turkish model in which the military was the backbone of state power, Iran may be adopting a version of that model as symbolized by Gen Baqeri’s state visit.
The smoke from the chibouk puffed on by Baqeri and Erdogan in Ankara may dance in the air for some time before it assumes a clear shape.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications and published 11 books. This article was originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.