Turkey navigates between Scylla and Charybdis

Turkey navigates between Scylla and Charybdis

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As tension escalates between Iran and Greece, two of Turkey’s neighbors with whom it is at odds on several issues, Ankara is navigating between Scylla and Charybdis — the two maritime hazards in Greek mythology that both brought disaster.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized two Greek oil tankers in the Gulf last week, having threatened retribution for Greece’s involvement in the earlier seizure of an Iranian tanker off the coast of a Greek island and the US confiscation of its cargo of oil.

Athens described the Iranian seizure of its vessels as “completely illegal and unprovoked.” The US and France called on the Iranian regime to immediately release the tankers, their cargos, and their crews, and said the seizures were “a serious violation of international law.” However, Tehran urged Greece to cooperate to resolve the issue without involving the US or any other third party.

The Iranian seizures were the first major maritime incident for several months, amid continuing disagreementbetween Iran and the West over the moribund nuclear deal, the war in Ukraine, and rising Turkish-Greek tensions.

There have been issues between Athens and Tehran before. In 2020, Iran warned Greece that it wouldretaliate in a “clear manner” if Athens allows the US to use Greek military bases against Tehran. Iran is now disturbed by the increasing American and Israeli military buildup in the eastern Mediterranean via Greece and Cyprus, and may place developments in the eastern Mediterranean and the seizure of its tanker on the agenda of its Supreme National Security Council. Iran is thought to be considering cooperation with Turkey and the administration in northern Cyprus to create a common front against the Greeks. However, the situation is complex because the three parties — Greeks, Turks and Iranians —disagree on several matters that are interrelated.

Greece and Iran have geopolitical significance in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East respectively. There have been no serious tensions in their historical relations. At the policy level, Greece’s EU membership and its geopolitical position in the eastern Mediterranean is of particular importance for Iranian foreign policy in regard to its relationship with the EU. However, any development in Iranian-Greek relations needs to take into consideration the concerns of the US and the EU; they have imposed economic sanctions on Iran, and as a member of both NATO and the EU, Greece shares Western concerns.

In the Greek myth, it was impossible to plot a successful course between Scylla and Charybdis — avoiding one brought inevitable disaster from the other. Turkey, as an immediate neighbor to both Iran and Greece, will hope that in its own interests it can defy mythology and navigate between the two.

Sinem Cengiz


Greek-Iranian relations are predicated on the geopolitical balance in the area and Turkey’s role in it is highly significant. It was interesting that Turkey made no comment on Iran’s seizure of the Greek tankers. Turkey has been at odds with both Greece and Iran for decades, and recently had tensions with both of its neighbors, amid its increasing efforts to fix its foreign policy ahead of the critical 2023 elections.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was cutting off all contact with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis because of an address the Greek leader made to the US Congress, urging it to keep blocking the sale of fighter jets, marking the latest reversal in the neighbors’ testy relationship. Last year, after a five-year hiatus, the two NATO members resumed talks to address their differences in the Mediterranean and other issues. The talks have made little progress and they have frequently traded barbs.

Athens and Ankara are locked in a fierce arms race due to their conflicting interests in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, and are among the highest defense spenders in NATO. Another source of tension between the two countries is migrant flows from Turkey to Greece. Lastly, Ankara has several times complained that Athens is not taking concrete steps to extradite PKK members.

Turkey also faces similar problems in its relations with Iran. Refugee flow from Iran through Turkey has been such a serious issue that Ankara even built a wall along its border with Iran. Turkey and Iran have also been at odds recently over the water issue, which has also been a problem between Turkey and its other two neighbors, Syria and Iraq. The coordination between Iran-backed militia groups and the PKK against Turkish forces in northern Iraq is another issue that represents one of the new fronts in escalating tensions between Iran and Turkey.

It is important to include the Syria dimension here. Although Ankara and Tehran are part of the Astana peace process for Syria, they disagree on several aspects of the Syrian issue. The most recent example of this is Tehran’s rejection of Turkey’s latest proposed military incursion into northern Syria, and its insistence that the best way to allay Turkey’s security worries is through dialogue rather than another foray into Syria. The PKK issue is the most critical one in Turkey’s relations with Greece and Iran.

In the Greek myth, it was impossible to plot a successful course between Scylla and Charybdis — avoiding one brought inevitable disaster from the other. Turkey, as an immediate neighbor to both Iran and Greece, will hope that in its own interests it can defy mythology and navigate between the two.

Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.  Twitter: @SinemCngz

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