Turkey and Tehran: Caught between a rock and a hard place

Turkey’s best­ing Iran in the con­test for the hearts and minds of advo­cates of change in Syr­ia and else­where in the Mid­dle East and North Africa is prov­ing to be both a bless­ing and a curse. With ten­sion mount­ing over Iran’s nuclear ambi­tions and the per­ceived win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty for a mil­i­tary strike clos­ing, Turkey faces increased chal­lenges and the threat of a proxy war with Syr­ia and the Islam­ic repub­lic. This is com­pound­ed by the fact that the US, Israel and Sau­di Ara­bia need Turkey in their effort to fur­ther cor­ner the regime in Syr­ia and to iso­late Iran, but want to pre­vent a shift in region­al pow­er away from the king­dom and the Israeli state to Ankara — increas­ing­ly held up as the mod­el of an eco­nom­i­cal­ly suc­cess­ful, Islamist-led democ­ra­cy.

A con­cert­ed effort by the US, Israel and Sau­di Ara­bia to fur­ther iso­late Iran has laid bare the chal­lenges fac­ing Turkey against the back­drop of an ever more severe sanc­tions regime, increased debate regard­ing a mil­i­tary strike to pre­vent the Islam­ic repub­lic from devel­op­ing a nuclear weapon and pop­u­lar revolts sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

The chal­lenges are evi­dent in the anti-Iran­ian campaign’s lit­tle noticed sub­text, with the US, Sau­di Ara­bia and Israel seek­ing to pre­vent a shift of pow­er in the region from Israel and the Gulf to Turkey and Iran. All three see ben­e­fit in Turkey’s ris­ing star as a result of its emo­tion­al sup­port for Pales­tine, its dete­ri­o­rat­ing rela­tions with its erst­while ally Israel, its per­ceived sup­port for the Arab revolt, an impres­sive eco­nom­ic per­for­mance and the fact that it is ruled by an elect­ed Islamist gov­ern­ment. (The Jus­tice and Devel­op­ment Par­ty (AK Par­ty), despite its Islamist ori­gins and appeal as well as a con­tin­ued wide­spread per­cep­tion of the par­ty as Islamist, rejects this label, argu­ing that it has put its Islamist past behind it.) How­ev­er, the trio does not want Turkey’s ascen­dance to be at the expense of either the king­dom or the Jew­ish state.

Turkey has so far large­ly been shield­ed from crit­i­cism that it, like the US, is seek­ing to main­tain the sta­tus quo in the Gulf and has failed to match words with deeds in its con­dem­na­tion of the Syr­i­an regime’s bru­tal crack­down on anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers, one which has already cost more than 5,000 lives. The veil shroud­ing con­tra­dic­tions in Turk­ish — as well as US, Israeli and Sau­di — pol­i­cy could well soon be lift­ed, with Syr­ia emerg­ing as a cru­cial flash­point in the mush­room­ing pow­er strug­gle in the Mid­dle \ East \ and North Africa (MENA). Increas­ing­ly it is look­ing like a mat­ter of when rather than if the wave of protests tru­ly spreads to the ener­gy-rich Gulf coun­tries, Sau­di Ara­bia first and fore­most among them.

The grad­ual mor­ph­ing of the 11-month old Syr­i­an protests into a civ­il war, much as was the case in Libya, leaves Turkey stuck between a rock and a hard place. With lit­tle appetite for mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion despite its sup­port of the revolt and warn­ings that there would be con­se­quences if Syria’s Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad failed to engage with his detrac­tors and ini­ti­ate polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic reform, Turkey risks being per­ceived as a paper tiger. Turk­ish For­eign Min­is­ter Ahmet Davu­to­glu insist­ed Turkey was “ready for all pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios” but had as yet not con­sid­ered mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion and didn’t want to. Sim­i­lar­ly, he sug­gest­ed that Turkey could cre­ate a mil­i­tary buffer zone with­in Syr­ia, should tens of thou­sands of Syr­i­ans seek refuge in Turkey, all the while insist­ing that such a zone was “not on the agen­da.” This reluc­tance to put its mon­ey where its mouth is from Turkey is not a stance it is like­ly to be able to main­tain for much longer, with the fail­ure of Arab League mon­i­tors in Syr­ia, tight­en­ing eco­nom­ic sanc­tions and an Arab League-backed move to get UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil endorse­ment of its call for al-Assad to step down.

Turkey could end up in the same boat as the US, which has seen its influ­ence and cred­i­bil­i­ty in MENA wane because of its inabil­i­ty to match its words with deeds. Despite its denun­ci­a­tions of al-Assad, Turkey has — like the US — remained silent on the need for change in the Gulf.Like the US it has a vest­ed inter­est in ensur­ing that the revolt does not hit the region, Sau­di Ara­bia in par­tic­u­lar, with full force.

Con­se­quent­ly, the strug­gle of US Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma is one Turkey may well face. The US admin­is­tra­tion is find­ing it dif­fi­cult to wield its influ­ence in a region with a more assertive Arab pub­lic opin­ion, one demand­ing that Wash­ing­ton make good on its promis­es in terms of both the rev­o­lu­tion and declared sup­port for an inde­pen­dent Pales­tin­ian state.

Obama’s inabil­i­ty to do so, par­tic­u­lar­ly in an elec­tion year, means that the US is find­ing it increas­ing­ly hard to per­form its past bal­anc­ing of dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed demands and expec­ta­tions from its allies in the Mid­dle East and North Africa. US sup­port for the top­pling of lead­ers like Egypt’s Gen. Hos­ni Mubarak has dam­aged its ties to key auto­crat­ic allies like Sau­di Ara­bia, while the need to be seen to be make real steps in fur­ther­ing Pales­tin­ian inde­pen­dence threat­ens to put it on a col­li­sion course with Israel.

Turkey’s poten­tial pol­i­cy dilem­ma is com­pli­cat­ed by con­tin­ued fall­out from the 2010 killing by Israeli Spe­cial Forces of nine Turk­ish nation­als aboard the Mavi Mar­mara, a Turk­ish aid ship seek­ing to run Israel’s block­ade of the Hamas-con­trolled Gaza Strip. Israel imposed its naval block­ade on Gaza after Hamas seized con­trol of the ter­ri­to­ry in June 2007, with Tel Aviv say­ing it was nec­es­sary to pre­vent weapons being sup­plied to mil­i­tants in the strip. Crit­ics of the sea and land block­ade describe it as col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment of Gaza’s 1.5 mil­lion inhab­i­tants.

Turkey has paint­ed itself into a cor­ner with its refusal to reverse the down­grad­ing of diplo­mat­ic rela­tions with Israel to the lev­el of sec­ond sec­re­tary and the sus­pen­sion of all mil­i­tary coop­er­a­tion. Ankara is adamant that these mea­sures will con­tin­ue as long as Israel fails to apol­o­gize or offer com­pen­sa­tion for the death of the Turk­ish activists, and main­tains its block­ade of Gaza. Short term, Turkey’s atti­tude has gar­nered it pop­u­lar sup­port across the Arab and Mus­lim world, but longer term it has com­pli­cat­ed Turkey’s efforts to shield itself from being drawn into the region’s mul­ti­ple con­flicts.

Turkey’s stance on Israel means it has lit­tle (if any) abil­i­ty to bring Israel and Iran back from the brink of a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion at a time that esca­lat­ing ten­sion between the two coun­tries threat­ens to impair Turkey’s efforts to project itself as a region­al Islam­ic, demo­c­ra­t­ic, eco­nom­ic and mil­i­tary pow­er.

While Turk­ish defense and mil­i­tary offi­cials have lit­tle doubt that Israel would pre­vail in a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion with Iran, even if it is unlike­ly to ful­ly destroy Iran’s decen­tral­ized and heav­i­ly for­ti­fied nuclear facil­i­ties, they wor­ry that like­ly Iran­ian retal­ia­to­ry attacks against Israel, as well as against US tar­gets in the Gulf and Afghanistan, would esca­late con­fronta­tion with Iran. As a result, mem­bers of Prime Min­is­ter Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rul­ing AK Par­ty have crit­i­cized him for respond­ing emo­tion­al­ly to Israeli poli­cies. While they remain crit­i­cal of Tel Aviv, they have urged Erdo­gan to repair rela­tions with Israel in a bid to ensure that Turkey can tru­ly act as a bridge across the West-East divide as well as MENA’s fault lines. The key to Turkey’s role may indeed lie par­tial­ly in Israel, but Turkey has only a lim­it­ed win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty to keep the door open as West­ern nations and Israel increas­ing­ly rat­tle their sabers.

In the event of a pre-emp­tive attack on Iran­ian nuclear facil­i­ties, any effort by Ankara to remain on the side­lines risks Turkey’s being por­trayed in Tel Aviv and Wash­ing­ton as hav­ing not only turned on Israel — often a yard­stick in the West for assess­ing Turk­ish for­eign pol­i­cy — but also sided with the ene­my. Already Tehran eyes Ankara’s con­dem­na­tion of al-Assad, as well as its mount­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty in a swath of land stretch­ing from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf, with sus­pi­cion. Tehran views these devel­op­ments as a US-Sau­di con­spir­a­cy designed to pre­vent the Islam­ic Rev­o­lu­tion of over 30 years ago get­ting the cred­it it deserves as an inspi­ra­tion for the Arab revolt and to stymie the appeal of the Islam­ic repub­lic for states in the tur­bu­lent region.

In a series of mes­sages, Iran­ian lead­ers warned Turkey that Turk­ish sup­port for an inter­na­tion­al cam­paign against Syr­ia, the Islam­ic republic’s fore­most Arab ally, and Syr­i­an oppo­si­tion groups would con­sti­tute a red line — warn­ings Turkey has so far ignored. With­out Syr­ia, Iran would be left only with Iraq as its fore­most inter­locu­tor in the Arab world. Iraq lacks Syria’s rela­tion­ship with groups like Hezbol­lah in Lebanon and Hamas in Pales­tine and is unlike­ly to be as com­pli­ant and strate­gic a friend as Syr­ia is. Turkey com­pound­ed Iran’s nar­row­ing options by not only set­ting its warn­ings aside but going a step fur­ther with its agree­ment to install on Turk­ish soil a NATO radar sys­tem believed to con­sti­tute a shield against Iran­ian bal­lis­tic mis­siles. In recent weeks, it has also start­ed look­ing at reduc­ing its depen­dence on imports of Iran­ian oil as West­ern pow­ers crack down on Iran’s oil sales and the Islam­ic repub­lic threat­ens to retal­i­ate by clos­ing the Strait of Hor­muz. Turkey sought to soft­en the blow by sug­gest­ing that major­i­ty state-owned Halk­bank would con­tin­ue to han­dle Iran­ian oil pay­ments as long as that does not run afoul of the sanc­tions regime.

Turk­ish offi­cials and ana­lysts fear that mount­ing ten­sion with Iran could pro­duce a covert proxy war, with Iran and Syr­ia sup­port­ing the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Par­ty (PKK), which has stepped up attacks on Turk­ish mil­i­tary tar­gets in the south­east of the coun­try. Syr­ia and Iran have already halt­ed their secu­ri­ty coop­er­a­tion with Turkey with regard to the Kurds. Con­ser­v­a­tive Iran­ian colum­nists have denounced Erdogan’s gov­ern­ment in recent months as a Sun­ni Mus­lim dic­ta­tor­ship that does not rep­re­sent half the country’s pop­u­la­tion — a ref­er­ence to Turkey’ large Kur­dish and Ale­vi com­mu­ni­ties. They warned that Turkey’s minori­ties con­sti­tut­ed its Achilles’ heel and a poten­tial­ly desta­bi­liz­ing fac­tor.

In a strange twist, Iran­ian soc­cer, pock­marked by nation­al­ist and envi­ron­men­tal protests in Iran’s East Azer­bai­jan Province, offers a per­spec­tive of how Turkey could respond in a proxy war with Syr­ia and Iran — one using eth­nic minori­ties as pawns. The soc­cer protests in the Bagh Shomal and Yade­gar-e-Emam sta­di­ums in Tabriz, the cap­i­tal of the province, sig­nal a rise in Azeri nation­al­ism. This trend would enable Turkey to exploit seces­sion­ist sen­ti­ments among its Tur­kic brethren in the pre­dom­i­nant­ly Azeri East Azer­bai­jan Province, which bor­ders the Tur­kic for­mer Sovi­et repub­lic of Azer­bai­jan, a close Turk­ish ally.

In the lat­est soc­cer inci­dent in Tabriz, fans of Tabriz soc­cer club Trac­tor Sazi Tabriz F.C. — a focus of Iran­ian Azerbaijan’s iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics owned by the state-run Iran Trac­tor Man­u­fac­tur­ing Co. (ITMCO) — wore shirts bear­ing Turkey and Azerbaijan’s flags and raised the lat­ter emblem dur­ing a match against Fajr-e Sep­a­si F.C. of Shi­raz. “[The] Iran­ian regime will […] charge them with sep­a­ratism and even arrest them. The main [Iran­ian con­cern] is that the idea of Turk­ism is strength­en­ing in South Azer­bai­jan,” Azeri news web­site news.az quot­ed Saf­tar Rahim­li, a mem­ber of the board of the World Azer­bai­ja­nis Con­gress, as say­ing. Rahim­li was refer­ring to the East Azer­bai­jan Province by its nation­al­ist Azeri name.

A con­ser­v­a­tive, pro-Iran­ian web­site, Raja News, con­firmed the inci­dent in Novem­ber, charg­ing that the soc­cer fans had employed “sep­a­ratist sym­bols” and shout­ed sep­a­ratist slo­gans dur­ing the match. Raja News accused the fans of pro­mot­ing “pan-Turk­ish” and “deviant” objec­tives. It urged author­i­ties to ban nation­al­ist fans from enter­ing soc­cer sta­di­ums.

The protests dur­ing the match against the Shi­raz-based club fol­lowed sim­i­lar protests in Sep­tem­ber and Octo­ber sparked by the Iran­ian parliament’s refusal to fund efforts to save the threat­ened Lake Oru­miyeh and by anti-gov­ern­ment protests in Tehran’s Aza­di Sta­di­um. The lat­ter occurred both dur­ing last month’s 2014 World Cup qual­i­fi­er against Bahrain and at a cer­e­mo­ny in May fol­low­ing the death of Nass­er Hejazi, an inter­na­tion­al­ly acclaimed Iran­ian defend­er and out­spo­ken crit­ic of Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ahmadine­jad.

A deci­sion by secu­ri­ty forces in ear­ly Octo­ber to bar fans’ entry into the sta­di­um dur­ing a match against Tehran’s Estegh­lal sent thou­sands into the streets of Tabriz shout­ing “Azer­bai­jan is unit­ed!” and “Long live unit­ed Azer­bai­jan with its cap­i­tal in Tabriz!” Scores were injured as secu­ri­ty forces tried to break up the protest. Cars honk­ing their horns choked traf­fic.

“Wher­ev­er Trac­tor goes, fans of the oppos­ing club chant insult­ing slo­gans. They imi­tate the sound of don­keys, because Azer­bai­ja­nis are his­tor­i­cal­ly derid­ed as stu­pid and stub­born. I remem­ber inci­dents going back to the time that I was a teenag­er,” said a long-stand­ing observ­er of Iran­ian soc­cer.

Mount­ing Iran-focused ten­sion serves, at least in the case of Israel and Sau­di Ara­bia, mul­ti­ple pur­pos­es that go beyond the nuclear threat. It puts Turkey on the spot and shifts atten­tion away from the wave of revolts sweep­ing MENA.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.