by Ahmet Mehmet (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 10, Rabi' al-Thani, 1442)
Writing about the great influence Islamic Revolution in Iran has had on the Islamic movement in Turkey, Hudson Institute, the neo-con think tank with close ties to the US regime, states, “because Turkish Islamists see themselves as part of an epic battle between the Muslim world and a Western or “Zionist-American” alliance, it is plausible that Turkish concerns over revolutionary Iran and its ambitions will continue to be relegated to the background… And all the while it is ignoring the fact that its own decisions have allowed Tehran’s regional influence to grow precipitously at Turkey’s own expense.”
By clutching on straws, the cynical conclusion of Hudson’s policy paper is one of many recent attempts to cancel out the shared interests of Islamic Iran and Turkey. They have managed their differences in Syria in a mature manner. This has greatly upset NATO regimes and their regional surrogates. It disrupts the traditional divide-and-rule policy of the West.
Pitting Ankara against Tehran is not a new policy. The fact that Turkey and Iran have managed to avoid broader regional tensions, even after decades of being pushed to do so, does not mean that external forces will stop instigating such conflict.
Nevertheless, it is not external powers and their propaganda outlets that pose the greatest danger to creating another regional problem for the Muslim world. It is Muslim institutions and individuals that may cause the eruption of the worst political scenario.
Slogan-like statements that peddle Iran’s ascendancy as a potential threat to Turkey and written by TRT or staunch pro-Erdogan supporter carry more weight and negative repercussions than when propagated by Western think-tanks. It gives NATO’s divisive narrative indigenous legitimacy and creates a pseudo-reality.
In most cases of friction, supporting actors and entities usually indulge in much more zealous and reckless behaviour than the actual parties involved. For example, followers of one Islamic trend often slander and insult other Islamic trends and schools of thought far more aggressively than ever done by the leadership of the Islamic trend they claim to follow or represent.
Many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jama‘at-e Islami, Hizb at-Tahrir, Turkey or Islamic Iran blinded by ignorance and driven by ego, add fuel to the fire in a manner neo-colonialist regimes cannot do. Thus, avoiding another regional intra-Muslim tension begins with the Muslims themselves.
Of course, leaders of Islamic movements, schools of thought and organizations cannot control the behavior of every one of their followers. However, the leadership must give clear guidance on a regular basis to avoid unnecessary tensions and not create pointless disagreements.
Due to their immediate hostile surroundings, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine have managed to implement this policy quite successfully. Both understand the deadly repercussions of not doing so. Even though Hizbullah and Hamas disagreed on the events in Syria, they did not engage in mass propaganda against one another and effectively reigned in their support base. Similarly, the leadership in Iran and Turkey understand that friction between their states will create significant problems for both.
Over the past 20 years, both Ankara and Tehran have developed strong economic relations, they need to firm-up the geopolitical foundations of their cooperation. The solidification of their geopolitical alliance needs to start by doing away with the outdated and currently irrelevant Safavid-Ottoman lense. Ottoman-Safavid narrative must in no way be connected to contemporary policies. It belongs in history books.
Western pundits and academics like to bring up the Safavid-Ottoman issue when discussing Iran and Turkey. It is deliberately projected through the foreign-imposed Sunni-Shia sectarian narrative.
There is another important aspect to the Ottoman-Safavid conflict, historically far more accurate that is not rooted in the Sunni-Shia but Turkic framework. Both the Safavids and the Ottomans were Turkic, vying for dominance over the region as well as the Turkic tribes. Seljuk vs Oghuz, nomadic vs settled Turkic people were often the issues which created tensions between them; madh-hab was not relevant. The Safavid-Ottoman conflict was essentially an intra-Turkic civil war for regional dominance.
So, what are some of the foundations upon which Iran and Turkey can build a solid geopolitical alliance? Tehran and Ankara both view the Saudi regime as a menace and a historic backstabber. On a deeper level, the Islamic establishments in both Turkey and Iran view the Saudi projected modern Khawarij trend as unacceptable.
Iran and Turkey have come closer in their position on the Zionist occupation of Palestine. It is essential that they do not fall into the trap set by its rank and file followers. A pointless argument as to which of the two is the “real” champion of the Palestinian cause should not matter, as long as both pursue specific steps towards Palestinian liberation.
The Arab world is a fertile ground for Turkish-Iranian cooperation. Tehran wisely recognizes its limits in the Arab world due to decades long Saudi funded sectarian propaganda. Thus, Iran does not seek to outperform Turkey in places like Egypt, Libya, Algeria or Jordan. In fact, Iran and Turkey have a similar outlook on what these locales should look like politically.
Both Ankara and Tehran agree that regional progress is possible when Western influence is reduced and regional trade enhanced. They also agree on assisting the Muslim Brotherhood in some form to become the leading socio-political force in Egypt.
In March 2019, Carnegie reported that “in July 2017, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood engaged in the most high-profile public meeting between the parties since Morsi’s removal from power in Egypt. Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, met with Ibrahim Munir on the sidelines of a meeting of the Islamic Unity Forum… Despite opposition to Iran in Sunni Islamist circles, the Muslim Brotherhood’s contacts with Iran serve as an important safety net for the group in a time of growing regional and global uncertainty.”
Apart from Syria, the greater difficulty for Iran and Turkey to manage their relationship will be in Azerbaijan. There, Israel is backing the Aliyev regime in exchange for access to Caspian Sea’s energy resources and a platform to sabotage Islamic Iran.
If Turkey ignores Israel’s rogue presence in Azerbaijan and jumps on the pan-Turkist narrative advanced in Azerbaijan by the Aliyevs and Israel, Ankara will land itself in a quagmire of tensions in the Caucasus.
The fact is that Russia does not view Turkish presence in the Caucasus favorably in the long-term. Moscow knows that a historical rival and NATO member country’s presence in its strategic sphere of influence is a situation which needs to be contained. Thus, in addition to NATO, Moscow would like to see Turkey’s role in the Caucasus contained by Iran rather than by Russia.
Moscow is bonded with Turkey through a series of important economic projects. It would not want to jeopardize its relations with Ankara but will not compromise in the Caucasus over medium monetary benefits. Therefore, Moscow’s interests in seeing Turkey and Iran being entangled in tense competition in the Caucasus concurs with Western strategy. It would consume the resources and power of two important Muslim countries in confronting each other, rather than solving the problems of the Muslim world.
The biggest obstacle to this remains the fact that even within the current Turkish leadership, West-centric outlook on what constitutes Turkey’s national interests remains strong.
The clearest proof of this is Turkey’s role in Syria. Prior to 2011, Syria was a geopolitical, trade and cultural window for Turkey into the Arab world. According to data provided by the Atlantic Council, “Turkey exported goods to Syria worth $1.8 billion in 2010, [of its total exports] of $113 billion. In 2012, Turkey’s trade volume with Syria deteriorated to $497 million.”
By adopting a pro-Israeli and pro-US agenda on Syria in 2011, Turkey’s rulers assumed that they could outmaneuver both and ride on America’s shoulders to become the new Ottoman Sultanate-style regional power.
This failed as NATO’s expectations of a quick collapse of the Syrian government did not materialize. This left Turkey’s border greatly destabilized with the added risk of sliding into regional tensions with Iran.
Most non-dogmatic experts agree that Turkish-Iranian regional confrontation is unrealistic, but not impossible. So far this has been avoided and all committed Muslims should strive to ensure that these two great Muslim states become strategic partners, not competitors or rivals.