Turkey, Iran flex muscles in tacit regional power struggle
When the Cold War ended, so too did the bipolar nature of world politics. Countries with regional leadership aspirations subsequently emerged in the Middle East and the Arab uprisings that started in late 2010 became a game-changer in the regional struggle for hegemony.
In international relations, the widely known definition of a regional power is a country that dominates a specific geographic region in economic, ideological and military terms. It has influence throughout the region via the successful employment of foreign policy tools, with its considerable hegemony accepted by the other countries in the region.
Two non-Arab countries, Turkey and Iran, have engaged in a fierce competition for Middle Eastern hegemony but, to achieve this, they will have to break free of the other’s influence from the South Caucasus to Syria and from Iraq to Lebanon. They will also need to cope with their own specific constraints to become a regional power — a status it is unlikely either will claim in the near future.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has condemned the Turkish army’s presence in Syria and Iraq. “We reject the Turkish military presence in Syria and Iraq, and we consider Ankara's policies towards Damascus and Baghdad to be wrong,” he told Press TV this week. His remarks were made on the same day that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani spoke to each other on the phone and discussed ways to improve bilateral ties.
Following the slaughter of 13 Turkish citizens by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq’s Gara region this month, Erdogan vowed that “from now on, nowhere is safe for terrorists, neither Qandil nor Sinjar or Syria.” A potential Turkish military operation to wipe out the PKK presence in Sinjar — a strategic region close to Iraq’s border with Syria, which Iran wants to control — has not only caused fear in the PKK, but also raised eyebrows among the Tehran-backed armed groups that are very effective there.
The contested region of Sinjar serves as a crucial point of geopolitical reality that allows Tehran to use the PKK card to limit Turkey’s ambitions in both Iraq and Syria. Although Tehran is also concerned about Kurdish separatism, as it faces a similar threat at home, it has used the PKK card against Turkey for decades. Now the regional cold war between Ankara and Tehran has come to the surface once again, with the PKK playing a critical role. The recently publicized arrests of alleged Iranian agents in Turkey are also being seen as a strong sign of the tensions between Turkey and Iran amid their regional competition.
The regional cold war between Ankara and Tehran has come to the surface once again, with the PKK playing a critical role.
Although, in the past few years, Turkish-Iranian relations have often been characterized by cooperation thanks to the Astana/Sochi process, their interests are increasingly divergent. Competition rather than cooperation is more likely to define their future relationship, as the two neighbors have flexed their muscles not only in Syria and Iraq, but also the South Caucasus — a new and unexpected battleground that emerged after the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkish support for Azerbaijan in the war was a watershed moment, indicating that Ankara is increasingly focusing on areas considered by Iran to be in its sphere of influence. The Turkish support for Baku represents a huge threat to Tehran, given its problematic ethnic Azeri minority and its long border with Azerbaijan. Although the South Caucasus is an arena for Iranian-Turkish confrontation, Syria and Iraq — two conflict-torn states where proxies are the primary forces — remain the real scene for their rivalry.
Regional countries reject Iranian dominance, but the facts on the ground suggest the opposite. International factors, such as Russian support and American passiveness, have enabled Iran to advance in the region. Despite all these gains, however, it faces disquieting constraints that limit the extent to which it can expand its regional influence. And Iranian dominance will not bring stability and peace to the Middle East, not today or in the future.
Although Turkey has political, economic and military advantages in the region, it faces serious constraints at home that limit its ability to curb Iranian ambitions and expand its own regional influence. However, despite the domestic pressures Turkey faces, Tehran has been alarmed by the recent foreign policy moves made by Ankara — especially in military terms — in the Middle East, Africa and South Caucasus.
But it is unlikely the two regional heavyweights will bring the “tacit” tension between them to the level of direct confrontation. Rather, it is likely to remain at the level of tit for tat on official rhetoric, proxy fights on the ground, and mutual efforts to dig a pit for each other’s influence behind closed doors.
* Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz