From Ankara to Tehran; the “Persian-Ottoman” rivalry is back (by Yeghig Tashjian)

29 Aug

From Ankara to Tehran; the “Persian-Ottoman” rivalry is back

Turkish-Iranian rivalry goes back centuries, to the Ottoman sultans and Persian shahs. The tensions somehow decreased in the 20th century due to Turkey’s isolationist foreign policy which left a power vacuum in the Middle East. As AKP reached to power in Turkey and the country’s economic and political influence grew in the region and as the Sunni-Baathists were overthrown from Iraq and in the absence of united Arab front against Israel, two regional countries tried to shape the balance of power in the region. As the Arab Uprising broke up, Iran and Turkey tried to contain each other and they turned Syria to chess table, these tensions lead to the emergence of so called a new “Sunni and Shia axis”. Therefore in order to assume the geopolitical borders of the post-Arab Uprising one should ask and see what are the cards that these two countries can play, on the domestic and regional level, to deter each other  and how costly and dangerous can it be to both of them and others?

Among the numerous treaties between Persia and Ottoman Turkey, the Treaty of Zuhab of 1639 is usually considered as the most important one, as it fixed present Turkey–Iran and Iraq–Iran borders and created a balance of power between the two Middle Eastern giants in the region. As this balance started to shake after the Arab Uprising, the neo-Ottomans and neo-Persians started to redraw the political map of the New Middle East, therefore the clash of interests between the two rivals is inevitable, both of them can use dangerous cards against each other that could threaten their domestic stability and regional hegemony.

In August 2011, Turkish-Armenian columnist, Markar Esayan, in his article “Iran Pulls the PKK Card” interpreted Iran’s message to Turkey as follows: “To Turkey, you have a dominant role in the uprisings in Syria, which is an indispensable ally to us in the region. If you try to put pressure on Syria or start an operation against the Syrian regime, we [Iran] will be strongly involved in the game with the PKK. In regards to the PKK issue, we are capable of capturing its leader and eliminating its activities; but we are also capable of making it grow… If you give up on Syria, we will deal with the PKK together; otherwise, we will become allies with the PKK.”[1] One of the cards that Iran can use against Turkey on domestic level is the PKK card, although this card sometimes can be dangerous because it may reflect negatively on Iran too, since Iranian Kurds are also seen as a threat to Iran’s territorial integrity. During the last decade Turkey and Iran signed many agreements in order to help each other to fight against Kurdish separatist movements. Things relatively changed as the Turkish government started to support and arm the Syrian opposition; Iran started to play the chess and used the PKK card as a pressure on Turkey. In August 2012 Turkish Daily Hurriyet News published news about the bomb that exploded in Turkish city Gazianteb that that killed nine and injured 68 and quoted Hussein Nakavi, a spokesman for an Iranian national security and foreign policy commission “Perhaps the support of Turkey has not just been causing the deaths of innocent people in Syria but has also been endangering its own security,” and added “Turkey is experiencing internal crises now. Ankara has to try to solve its own internal affairs instead of interfering and giving hostile statements to Syria.”[2]

distribution of Alawites and Kurds in Turkey

distribution of Alawites and Kurds in Turkey

What else can Iran do against Turkey? On the regional level Iran lost in Bahrain, though still holding Iraq and Lebanon, but its strategic ally the Syrian regime is in alarm, if Iran loses Syria, the game will be over for the “Shia axis”. Thus Iran by the help of the Assad regime can support the Turkish Alawites in Iskenderun region; Alawits make up about 15% of the population in Turkey, while in Hatay province they make about half the population[3], mostly seculars and pro-Syrian regime, Turkish Alawites will join the secular opposition Turkish Republican People’s Party (CHP), thus Erdogan’s government may shake and be accused of sectarianism, once again Erdogan’s nightmare will come to reality, and the seculars will rise again against their government. As Turkey’s domestic stability is shaken the country will not have enough resources to act in regional issues and its hegemony may diminish. Moreover, in November 2011, shortly after Turkey agreed to host an early warning radar as part of NATO’s missile defense system, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ aerospace division, stated that “should we be threatened, we will target NATO’s missile defense shield in Turkey and then hit the next targets.” Furthermore, Ali-Akbar, senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, argued that Turkey’s model of “secular Islam” was a version of western liberal democracy and unacceptable for countries going through an “Islamic awakening.”[4]

Iranian missiles can even reach to Istanbul

Iranian missiles can even reach to Istanbul

Competition over Syria has also mobilized fault lines in Iraq, where Turkey and Iran have supporting opposing camps Since Iraq’s first democratic elections in 2005, Iran has supported the Shiite-backed Dawa party of Nuri al-Maliki, while Turkey has backed the secular pan-Iraqi movement of Ayad Allawi. After 2010 elections, al-Maliki formed a government, scoring a victory for Iran. In an interview with al-Hurra television, al-Maliki said: “Turkey is unfortunately playing a role which may lead to disaster and civil war in the region, and Turkey itself will suffer because it has different sects and ethnicities”[5].Turkey and Iran have also had competing interests in Bahrain, where Iran supported the protestors (mainly Shi’as),while Turkey has come out in support of the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy with whom it hopes to pursue closer economic ties (In this case Turkey and Iran were in a hypocritical position the first opposing democratic change and the other supporting it unlike in Syria).

What are Turkey’s choices? What cards can the neo-Ottomans play? The presence of 14 million ethnic Azeri in Iran[6] which is considered Southern Azerbaijan by the Baku (Azerbaijan’s capital) government has caused a great deal of friction between Tehran and Baku. Iran has tried to suppress secessionist tendencies encouraged by the pro-Turkish Baku government.  Since the 1990’s Iran has sided with Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan.  Turkey on the other hand, has close cultural and historical ties with Azerbaijan; it has backed Azerbaijan politically, and has strong commercial ties with it. Meanwhile, according to Today’s Zaman newspaper representatives of Iranian Azeris have announced the establishment of an “International South Azerbaijani Turks’ National Council,” which ultimately aims to become independent from Iran. “Our ultimate aim is the independence of Turks living in ‘Southern Azerbaijan.’ But we seek independence by democratic, peaceful means, not through the use of weapons,” Cemal Mehmethanoğlu, the spokesperson of the council, declared at a press conference held at the Azerbaijani Cultural Association in Ankara[7].

distribution of Iranian ethnic groups

distribution of Iranian ethnic groups

Furthermore the Israeli-Azeri military agreements alarmed the Islamic Republic of Iran, therefore if Iranian Azeris succeeded to rebel and fulfilled their dream of succession from Iran, the later will enter into an era of chaos since the Kurds in the North-west, and the Baloch in the South will join the Azeris and Iran’s territorial integrity will be in question. On the regional ground, Turkey by the help of Western powers and Arab Gulf states will surround Iran and impose diplomatic pressure, already the Lebanese government is in weak position and the al-Maliki government in Iraq is in tension with the Sunnis and the Kurds, thus Iran’s allies in the region are losing ground and the battle for Syria, which turned into a proxy war, will determine the political border of the “New Middle East”. On the other hand Ankara needs to regain its balance among its neighbors; Turkish FM Davutoglu’s so called “zero-problem” foreign policy already turned into somehow “zero-relation” policy especially with Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Therefore the struggle between the Ottomans and Persians once again will shape the region, it may take long and turn into a bloody path but in the end no one will be are able to overcome on the other because both of them are composed of multiethnic communities and both need each other to promote peace in the region. Both countries are slowly showing their hands in the region’s oldest power game, the Ottoman and Persian struggle is once again in front of our doors. But in the Middle East there is no room for a “sultan of sultans” or a “shah of shahs”, there should be both a sultan and a shah.

Yeghig Tashjian


[1]MarkarEsayan, “Iran Pulls the PKK Card”, http://www.todayszaman.com/columnist-253915-iran-pulls-the-pkk-card.html, 16 August, 2011

[2] Gaziantep bomb the result of Turkey’s anti-Damascus stance: Iranian official, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com, 22 August, 2012

[3] “In one of Turkey’s most religiously diverse provinces, close ties with Syria fuel support for Assad regime”, http://www.pro.org/stories/world/middle-east/in-one-of-turkey-s-most-religiously-diverse-provinces-close-ties-with-syria-fuel-support-for-assad-regime-9308.html , 11/4/2012

[4] McCurdy Daphne, Danforth Nick, “Turkey and Iran: A Fraying Relationship or Business as Usual?”,http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/02/28/turkey_and_iran_a_fraying_relationship_or_business_as_usual?hidecomments=yes, 11/4/2012

[5] “Iraqi PM Slams Turkey’s ‘interference’ ”,http://www.presstv.ir/detail/221333.html, 17/2/2012

[6] Nadir Devlet , “Turkey and Greater Azerbaijan:A Card to Play?”, German Marshall Fund of US, July 24,2012

[7] “Iranian Azeris set up national council in Turkey,aspire for independence”, http://www.todayszaman.com/news-280353-iranian-azeris-set-up-national-council-in-turkey-aspire-for-independence.html, 29/8/2012

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