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Turkey and Iran: Bitter Friends, Bosom Rivals
by International Crisis Group
For nearly two centuries and despite their fierce geopolitical competition from the Levant to Iraq and the Caucasus, Turkey and Iran have kept the peace between themselves, compartmentalized growing energy and commercial relations and even cooperated regionally when their interests converged. Yet today, while their economies are increasingly intertwined, a profound disagreement over core interests in Iraq and Syria is putting these two former empires on a collision course. It is not too late for a critically-needed reset, but only if both recognize their fundamental interest in reversing course and taking steps that allow them to manage their differences peacefully, as they have done for almost 200 years.
Overlapping ethnicities and cultures can at times make the two countries seem like two sides of the same coin, but Iran is a leading regional proponent of both Shiite Islam and theocratic governance, while Turkey’s secular constitution is built on a bedrock of Sunni Islamic practice. As their officials and diplomats attest, Turkey and Iran generally concur on the strength of the relationship they have carefully nurtured during a long history of cohabitation. Since the upheavals that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa from 2011, however, frictions have increased over what each sees as the other’s hostile maneuvering in two countries of critical importance to both: Iraq and Syria. Their inability to accommodate each other has the potential to undermine or even undo their strong ties.
Both have empowered local partners and proxies on the battlefields of Mosul, Tel Afar, Aleppo and Raqqa that are forcefully positioning themselves to control whatever emerges from the debris of today’s wars. Though both have attempted to build on shared interests – defeating or at least marginalizing Islamic State (IS) and curbing the rise of autonomy-minded Syrian Kurds – deep suspicions about the other’s ambitions to benefit from the chaos have stopped them from reaching an arrangement that could lower the flames. The dynamics instead point toward deepening sectarian tensions, greater bloodshed, growing instability across the region and greater risks of direct – even if inadvertent – military confrontation between them where their spheres of influence collide. The possibility that an Iranian-made drone killed four Turkish soldiers in northern Syria on 24 November 2016, as Ankara alleges, points toward perilous escalation.
To reverse course and avoid worse, they need to overcome mutual mistrust. To this end, and as a pressing priority, they should establish a channel for continuous high-level negotiations over their regional postures. The pace of such meetings as have been held has been problematic: periodic senior encounters lasting one or two days, followed by relatively long periods of diplomatic vacuum that tend to be filled with escalation of proxy wars and one-upmanship. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran should designate personal representatives with the authority to manage the diplomatic channel.
If they do this, and to demonstrate seriousness and goodwill, the governments should also take confidence-building steps, from more intelligence cooperation to coordinated de-escalation where conflict is most acute. In northern Iraq, Iran might thus offer as a first step to rein in Shiite militias deployed in Nineva governorate, even as units nominally accountable to the Iraqi prime minister in his capacity as commander in chief, in return for Turkey agreeing to withdraw its tanks and other heavy weapons from the area. Confidence-building measures, if well-executed, could pave the way for agreed principles of good neighborliness, mutual recognition of each other’s core interests and legitimate security concerns in the region and an articulation of clear red lines with respect to actions each deems hostile.
The U.S. and Russia, which have strong military ties with Turkey and Iran respectively, as well as in each case disagreements and conflicting interests, should support such steps. For now, Turkey and Iran remain caught in the web of RussiaU.S. relations, maneuvering to create space for autonomous decisions; they will be able to succeed only to the extent they find a way to work together.
De-escalation and increased Ankara-Tehran cooperation are necessary but insufficient to resolve the metastasizing, intersecting crises involving many actors and heightened sectarian passions. Even getting to that point would be hard. Electoral calendars in both countries and the imperatives of domestic politics and balancing ties with regional partners wary of a rapprochement could hinder progress. But the effort would be important and should be pursued; it could at least help reduce the sectarian tensions fanned by unhelpful rhetoric from both leaderships.
Only by finding common ground can Turkey and Iran contribute to a more stable and secure region. The alternative – crystallized in the zero-sum dynamic that marks Iran’s relations with the region’s other major Sunni power, Saudi Arabia – is even greater disorder and suffering.
Today’s geostrategic competition between Turkey and Iran is the latest iteration of an old power game, but with an increasingly ominous twist as they warily eye each other’s moves in Iraq and Syria, prime their proxies and, in Turkey’s case, prepare to escalate direct military involvement. How the two choose to deploy their power, with whom they align and whether they can manage or overcome their differences is vitally important not only to them, but also to their neighbors and other states with a stake in the Middle East. Among the actors involved in the region’s wars, however, no two are more suited to identify ways toward renewed mutual accommodation than Turkey and Iran. They have extensive communication channels and long experience in striking geostrategic deals, engage in intensive trade and importantly share a core interest in preserving their neighbors’ territorial integrity.
As the region’s conflicts worsen, the future becomes more unpredictable, with no actor insulated from potential harm. Today’s seductive opportunities may become tomorrow’s smothering traps. It should be an interest of those that have the ability, maturity and long history of peaceful relations not to allow themselves to be sucked further into an uncertain future but to agree to a critical course correction that, while not settling all conflicts, could at least help lessen overall tensions.
To do so, as a pressing priority, they should establish a channel for continuous high-level negotiations over their regional postures. The pace of such meetings as have been held has been problematic: periodic senior encounters lasting one or two days, followed by relatively long periods of diplomatic vacuum that tend to be filled with escalation of proxy wars and one-upmanship. President Erdogan and Supreme Leader Khamenei should designate personal representatives with the authority to manage the diplomatic channel. This could allow Ankara and Tehran to go beyond merely managing differences – with the risks of accidents, miscalculations and miscommunications this entails – and frankly acknowledge one another’s interests and security concerns in their shared neighborhood. Without such a strategic understanding, piecemeal transactional arrangements will not yield the desired results, as progress on one issue could be neutralized by setbacks elsewhere.
The U.S. and Russia should adopt a coherent, supportive approach toward the two regional powers and their conflicting aspirations for primacy, pressing their respective allies to take steps that can help avoid an escalation that would be in neither Russian nor U.S. interests.
In sum, Turkey and Iran need to set in motion a virtuous dynamic that, by enabling negotiation of a sustainable modus vivendi, could stabilize their relationship and start reducing the flames burning in the region. This requires difficult reciprocal concessions and confidence-building steps but would protect their interests far better than continuation of a highly unstable and unpredictable status quo or, worse still, escalation and direct military confrontation.
These excerpts from the International Crisis Group report are reprinted with permission. Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.