Turkish-Iran relations have turned sour in recent months. The clearest sign came during a visit by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Tehran early this month. Erdogan had reportedly received ill-treatment from his Iranian hosts. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad postponed a scheduled meeting with Erdogan allegedly for health problems. Ahmadinejad, however, received on the same day Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad who carried a message from the Syrian leadership. Erdogan had also to fly to Qom to meet with Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The meeting went bad when the two leaders exchanged accusations over which side is right concerning the Syrian uprising. Upon his return to Ankara, Erdogan announced that his country has decided to join the West in imposing sanctions on Iran and has subsequently cut 20 per cent of its purchases of Iranian oil.
The signs of strained Turkish-Iranian relations were already manifest in September 2011 when Ankara agreed to install new Nato radar systems to detect missiles launched from Iran. Iran strongly criticised the move and considered it to be a hostile act. In response, it tried to sideline Turkey in its talks with the six great powers concerning its nuclear programme. Tehran proposed Baghdad instead of Istanbul to host the last week (P5+1) meeting. Although the meeting had eventually taken place in Istanbul, it did not change much in the hostile language between the two countries.
Just over a year ago, the US was expressing anger and frustration at the Turkish-Iranian rapprochement and Turkey's reluctance to join the West in isolating Iran. Iranian officials had repeatedly praised Turkey's foreign policy stances, describing it on several occasions as a sister country. Turkey had even tried to hamper US attempts in the UN Security Council to impose tougher sanctions against Iran. To this end, it led a joint effort with Brazil in the summer of 2010 to defuse a crisis between Tehran and Washington over the former's intentions to increase the percentage of uranium enrichment from 5 to 20 per cent.
Turkish-Brazilian efforts resulted in the Tehran declaration in which Iran agreed to freeze local enrichment in exchange for equally enriched uranium to be supplied by France and Russia. The US had initially encouraged Turkey to go ahead with its efforts, hoping that Iran would not agree. When Iran responded positively to Turkish mediation, Washington backed off. It resorted instead to the UN Security Council to impose further sanctions on Iran. Angered by what it considered as a slap on the face by the US, Ankara, which at the time held a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council, surprised many, including Tehran, when it voted against the US-sponsored resolution. The Turkish-Iranian honeymoon seems to have come to an end. The two countries have just rediscovered the harsh realities of Middle Eastern politics. They seem to disagree on almost every single issue in the region.
Sphere of influence
In fact, two key developments have played vital role in ending the honeymoon between the two big regional powers: the US withdrawal from Iraq and the Syrian uprising. When the US completed the withdrawal of its forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, it was already apparent that Iran has emerged as the dominant power in the country. This situation allowed Tehran to secure a sphere of influence stretching from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. Turkey saw a Shiite crescent in the making, consisting of Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah and led by Iran. For Ankara, this worrying development if allowed to materialise unhampered could fundamentally change the political landscape of the entire region.
The breakout of the Syrian uprising presented Turkey, therefore, with a golden opportunity to address this geo-strategic dilemma. Syria emerged as an ideal arena to check Iran's power and contain its ambitions. At present, the polarisation is clearly taking a sectarian flavour and Turkey sees an opportunity to bring about a regime change in Damascus.
Ankara has, therefore, openly sided with the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella of Syrian opposition groups, and is also hosting the Free Syrian Army, a group of Sunni defectors, seeking to bring down the Syrian regime. If its calculus works, Ankara may be one step closer to its neo-Ottoman aspirations, helping to spearhead Sunni, political Islamic movements in the Middle East and North Africa. Against this backdrop, it may well be that Ankara's decade-long, improving relations with Tehran have come to an end. Turkey's support of the Syrian opposition explicitly threatens Iran's expanding power in the region and its ideological sphere of influence. Turkey may thus increase its cooperation with the West against Iran while Tehran might start using the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) as leverage against Ankara.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon Damascus, Syria.