The possible outcomes of the diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Iran
The Azeri-Iranian poem recited by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this month at a military parade in Baku triggered a diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Tehran. For Iran’s leadership, matters did not end with summoning the Turkish ambassador over the poem, which recalls the 19th-century Russo-Iranian division of Azerbaijan’s territories; Tehran viewed the poem as a direct assault on Iran’s territorial integrity.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed anger, asserting that the poem incites separatism amongst Iran’s sizeable Azeri minority. The poem mentions the Aras river on the Azeri-Iranian border and recalls the agony suffered by the Azeris following the 1813 Russo-Iranian Treaty of Gulistan, under which the Azeri territories north of the Aras river were granted to the Russian Empire and those to the south were granted to Iran. From Iran’s perspective, the poem was a blatant Turkish attempt to nullify the treaty and allow Azeris to return to pre-Gulistan status.
The poem was recited at a time when competition between Turkey and Iran is raging across several arenas, foremost among which are Syria and Iraq, with both countries aiming to create leverage and acquire new areas of influence within geopolitical “grey areas of competition.” Victory is ultimately attained by gaining points in more than one grey area.
Erdogan’s move came at a delicate juncture, with Turkey aware that the changes taking place in the Iraqi arena are not in Iran’s interests, particularly given the attempts of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to transition Iraq to real statehood in which the state exercises genuine authority over its territories. This is in addition to rapidly moving developments in Iraqi Kurdistan, strong Russian-Israeli pressure on Iran’s presence in Syria, and changes detrimental to Tehran’s interests in the southern Caucasus following the rise of Azerbaijan’s status as a power aligned with Turkey. Azerbaijan is making gains, with Erdogan taking credit and taking advantage of the new situation to wrest control over a new “grey area of competition” on the Iranian borders in a similar way to Iran maintaining a presence in Syria via its armed militias deployed near the Turkish borders.
More importantly, the Turkish leadership is aware of the need to craft new policies considering the change in Washington. Several observers have suggested that Erdogan’s move was intended to woo Joe Biden, suggesting that Turkey is willing to end its support to Iran despite the current strong relations between the two countries, especially at a time when the US has imposed sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. Cutting ties with Iran would be consistent with the pragmatic Turkish foreign policy under Erdogan.
During his speech, Erdogan again said that saving Azerbaijan and its territories from occupation did not mean that Baku’s struggle was over, with it likely to continue in both the political and military arenas on several other fronts. This was widely interpreted as Turkey’s vow to continue to fuel Azeri nationalism and unite the Azeri people in one state.
Despite the current cooperation between the two countries, conflict is inevitable given the divisive and polarizing policies pursued by both states
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Conflict analysts offer various interpretations of the cooperation and conflict between Turkey and Iran since Erdogan came to power. Despite the current cooperation, conflict is inevitable given the divisive and polarizing policies pursued by both states, the cutthroat competition to claim regional leadership and the overlapping areas of influence in several fields. For example, Erdogan raised the prospect of conflict when he launched an attack in June 2017 on the external misadventures of the Iranian regime in Syria and Iraq. He condemned “Persian expansionism.” He said: “Is Syria a theater for Iran’s sectarian expansionism? Yes, it is. Is Iraq a theater also? Yes, it is. I regard this a Persian expansionism rather than a sectarian one. I should specifically say that I do not approve of this Persian expansionism.”
Nonetheless, analysts link the ebb and flow of relations between the two states to the nature of the global system and how it deals with competing regional powers.
When this system applies the same principles inclusively to all, regional powers, competing for areas of influence and regional leadership, are more likely to suspend hostilities; in such a situation, regional powers are likely to see collective benefits in overlooking any prevailing crises to more effectively face the collective pressures imposed by the global system. It should be noted, however, that this does not imply an absence of mutual hostilities or crises.
This does not mean an end to the crises but indicates that competing regional powers are likely to resort to “competition in the grey areas.” The conflict between regional powers intensifies as the global pressure that had previously brought them together diminishes.
“Postponing” conflict is more prevalent when the global system is unipolar, such as the current US-led one, with the policy of competition in “grey areas” acting as a substitute. Turkey and Iran attempted, during Donald Trump’s presidency, to gain leverage over one another without direct conflict.
This provides an understanding of Iran-Turkish relations throughout Trump’s term, unlike the relationship during Obama’s presidency. Also, it is important to note that despite competition, Turkey stood by Iran during Trump’s term and rejected US sanctions, leading to Ankara facing similar sanctions.
However, Biden’s election has raised concerns in Ankara that Iran will benefit by changing the course of its policies from those implemented during Trump’s term. This could allow Iran to advance its expansionist misadventures. In this case, tensions will certainly resurface between Ankara and Tehran.
Despite Turkey’s escalation of media attacks on Iran since uncovering an 11-member Iranian cell in Istanbul believed to have links with the Revolutionary Guards, who abducted the Ahwazi dissident Habib Chaab and trafficked him to Iran, in addition to Ankara airing a video on the Ahwazi cause, this crisis is unlikely to escalate any further.
This is because of Iran’s reliance on Turkey to circumvent US sanctions, and its economic crisis and expansionist plans, which have led to Tehran incurring massive financial and human losses, while still awaiting any substantial benefits. These realities have forced Iran to avoid any new conflicts with regional powers such as Turkey. Despite Iranian militias in Syria coming under dozens, and even hundreds, of Israeli airstrikes in different Syrian provinces, Tehran failed to retaliate, no doubt impeded by its crippling economic crisis and fearful of instigating a new conflict with Israel, in addition to the huge challenges confronting it in the Iraqi andSyrian arenas. Also, Tehran’s plans have been impeded by the assassinations this year of Qassem Soleimani and nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
Since Iran and Turkey are both awaiting the announcement of Biden’s policies, downplaying tensions represents a more pragmatic policy on Iran’s part, which appears evident in Iran’s speedy containment of the crisis, reiterating deep-rooted ties between the two countries and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s insistence that Erdogan had not intended to insult Iran’s territorial integrity by reciting the poem.
*Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami