What the Turkish Coup Means for Iran

by Shireen Hunter

Iran was among the very first governments to express its support for the democratically elected government of Turkey during the recent failed coup d’état. High Iranian officials such as the president, foreign minister, and the speaker of the parliament also spoke to their counterparts in Turkey.

Considering that Iran’s relations with Turkey, especially its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been rather frosty in the last several years, why was Iran so eager to register its opposition to the coup attempt? One reason is that Iran itself is potentially vulnerable to coup attempts. Although the likelihood of a military coup is not very high, since the Revolutionary Guards are the real military power in the country, powerful military or civilian factions could resort to unlawful means to undermine a legitimate government, especially if it were of a more moderate or reformist leaning. Therefore, a principal reason for Iran’s reaction was opposition to unlawful and especially military means of altering the character of governments.

Iran’s other reason was the uncertainty regarding the identity of the coup plotters. If the plotters were Kemalists, Iran could not have expected better treatment from Turkey under a new ruling class than it has gotten from Erdogan. Iranian leaders remember the tense state of relations with Turkey throughout 1980s and 1990s when the generals wielded the real power in the country either openly or behind the scenes. The only exception was the very brief interlude of the Erbakan government (June 1996-June 1997).

If, as Erdogan claims, the plotters were the followers of Fethullah Gülen, Turkey’s relations with Iran almost certainly would have deteriorated. Gülen is very anti-Shia in his views. Erdogan’s own anti-Shia tendencies, which also extend to Turkey’s Alevis, are partly because he himself was once a bona fide Gulenist. In addition to being anti-Shia, Gulen is also reportedly anti-Iran. According to one account, Gülen has said that if going to heaven requires passing through Iran he will refuse to go. This report may not be true, but clearly Gülen and his followers have no love for Iran. In fact, some Turkish newspapers supporting Gülen have in the past referred to Iran as the Persian Satan. Therefore, a Gulenist leadership would have followed a much more anti-Iran policy and cooperated even more closely with Iran’s rivals and enemies in the region. In short, a Gulenist government would have undermined Iran’s security political and regional position.

A further reason could be that Iran had realized that in the last few months Erdogan had suffered some serious setbacks in his foreign policy. As a result, he was beginning to mend Turkey’s relations with its neighbors, including possibly with Syria and even its leader Bashar al-Assad. Therefore, a somewhat humbled and conciliatory Erdogan would be better for Iran than a new government with anti-Shia and anti-Persian tendencies.

Now that Erdogan has reestablished power, will he respond positively to Iran’s show of support or he will revert to past policies? A more positive Turkish policy toward Iran would have clear economic and other benefits for both countries. Turkey, for example, can increase its import of Iranian gas and invest in Iranian industries and other ventures. Iran could also help mediate in Turkey’s relations with Iraq and the three countries could have many joint and profitable economic ventures. A more cooperative Turkish -Iranian relations could also result in mutually advantageous ventures involving South Caucasian countries, especially Azerbaijan. Similarly, Turkey, Iran, and Russia could engage in cooperative ventures. Better Turkish-Iranian relations would also improve Iran’s position vis a vis Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab States. If some Arab states were indeed involved in the coup attempt, as some regional media have speculated, Turkey might move closer to Iran.

However, there are limits to closer Turkish -Iranian relations and their cooperation on regional issues. The coup has not changed Erdogan’s deeply sectarian and, to some degree, ethnic dislike of Iran. Nor has it eliminated his competitive impulses. More important, Turkey must keep in mind its Western ties. A good part of Turkey’s recent power and prestige has derived from its relations with the West, including its membership in NATO. Therefore, Turkey and Erdogan must be careful that policy shifts do not endanger these ties.

Beyond its potential implications for the future of Turkey-Iran relations, the failed coup in Turkey could especially influence Europe’s approach to Iran. With Turkey entering a difficult and uncertain future at least in the short to medium term, Europe might look differently at Iran and be more willing to take a chance on it, which could mean a more robust policy of economic engagement with Iran. Turkish events, coupled with other developments in the Middle East such as the almost inevitable succession crisis in Saudi Arabia, should dissuade Europeans from putting all their eggs in one or two baskets and make them realize that spreading the risk is a better strategy.

However, Turkish events will not likely have much influence on US approach to Iran. The opponents of better relations with Iran are much stronger in the US than in Europe. And of course, there is the uncertainty of the forthcoming presidential elections in the United States.

Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.


One Comment

  1. Interesting concept. I am not sure if I agree with the part that Iran itself is worried about coups, since most of their military personal are extremely loyal to the regime. However I do agree, that Iran was forced to choose between 2 bad options, and they decided to go with the one that was less bad. History has shown, that Iran will not support anyone for free… trust me in the future Turkey will later have to pay back Iran for the support they received.

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