What to Make of the latest Iranian-Turkish Row

Turkish-Iranian relations have been rocky since the deepening of the Syrian imbroglio. But the latest row suggests a new low. In no uncertain terms both the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and foreign minister Ahmet Davuto?lu, expressed displeasure with recent harsh statements coming out of Tehran regarding Turkish culpability in the quagmire Syria has become. The Turkish leadership was particularly upset with the recent remark by Iran’s chief of general staff who has said that “it will be its turn” if Turkey continues to “help advance the warmongering policies of the United States in Syria.”

Seeking Turkey’s help for the release of some 48 Iranians kidnapped by the insurgents in Syria, Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi tried hard to soften the angry language that is coming out of Iran’s hawkish foreign policy wing. Davutoglu nevertheless warned him “in a frank and friendly manner” against blaming Ankara for violence in Syria.

On the ground, the reality in Syria is taking its toll on the relationship. Along with the exchange of unprecedented accusations, Iran has reportedly decided to suspend a visa-free travel arrangement with Turkey. This arrangement, in force since 1964, was suspended last week under the pretext of concerns for the run-up to the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which will commence at the end of August in Tehran. It will be reinstated after the NAM meeting in September, but the reasoning has been treated with suspicion by the Turkish press. Meanwhile, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Ar?nç slammed Iran, implying that the recent surge of terror attacks in Turkey’s Southeast has Tehran’s backing. “We have received information that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] terrorists infiltrated from the Iranian side of the border and that they were stationed in the ?ehidan camp [in Iran] and crossed into Turkey from the region of Harkuk in northern Iraq,” he said.

What explains Iran’s most recent vocal offensive against Turkey and the Erdogan government’s testy response? Tehran has obviously been unhappy with Ankara’s role in supporting the insurgency in Syria. But assessing that Erdogan’s Syria policy is not that popular at home – at least among some key stakeholders – Iran seems to have made the decision to highlight the dangers of what it considers to be a Turkish policy of reckless involvement in the Syrian crisis for Turkey itself and eventually for the political standing of the Justice and Development Party.

It should be noted that Tehran is not that off the mark regarding the unpopularity of Erdogan’s policy and as such, there is a method in the madness of offending a government that in Erdogan’s words “stood by Iran when no one was at its side.” Tehran is banking on the fact that with the spilling of the Syrian crisis into Turkey, Erdogan’s Islamist government will be facing increasing criticism from secular forces for jumping on the Assad bandwagon without thinking carefully about the implications of Syria’s disintegration as a country. Tehran is also banking on the belief that in a contested political environment like Turkey’s, public opinion matters.

Tehran’s logic in assessing Erdogan’s domestic vulnerability on his Syrian policy is simple. Bashar al-Assad’s fall may make Iran a loser in the proxy fight over Syria, but Turkey will be an even bigger loser if the motley crew of forces that have come together to dislodge Assad end up destabilizing the borders that were imposed by external forces in the first half of the twentieth century. (The Turkish border with Iraq was negotiated with the British government in 1926 and was established with Syria in 1938 when, after the expiration of the French mandate, the people of the border province of Hatay voted to be a part of Turkey rather than Syria).

Tehran thinks that insecurity resulting from ethnic and religious disputes in Syria and countries like Iraq will deal the greatest and most drastic blow to Turkey among all the regional countries. While Iran may eventually lose a key ally in Assad and find its position weakened in the region, it is Turkey that has to deal with its own angry Arab Alevis residing near the Syrian border (and potentially the much larger Turkish and Kurdish Alevi population frightened by aggressive Sunni acts), opportunistic Kurdish nationalism, and the mayhem that refugees invariably bring into border areas. Tehran feels that such potential costs – some of which are already in evidence – will be the source of political divisions within Turkey and that highlighting them may increase domestic pressure on Erdogan to change course.

Erdogan’s fierce response can also be understood with this domestic dynamic in mind. In fact, Erdogan has already issued other angry responses against the domestic critics of his Syrian policy, at times even calling them traitors for questioning his efforts. He took a dig at the Iranian leadership’s own domestic problems when he said last week that “250,000 Syrians have left the country [Syria]. Is this not the responsibility of Iran? Yet, before Iran takes responsibility for the situation in Syria, it must first hold itself accountable [for its own]. We always take responsibility for our actions.”

But Iran holding itself responsible will not solve Erdogan’s Syria angst at home. As Morton Abramowitz points out, Syria is a major domestic issue and there is significant complaining about Erdogan’s handling of the Syria crisis. There is nothing pretty for Turkey in the potential materialization of some form of a Kurdish entity in northern Syria and the emergence of a Syria mired in an ethnic and confessional civil war with different groups controlling different regions.

The activism of Iran in the past week (i.e. Saeed Jalili going to Syria, Salehi going to Turkey, and then the holding of an ambassadorial meeting on Syria in Tehran) must hence be understood as having the following objectives:

1. To make a public (and visually unsettling) case that Assad’s fall is not imminent as portrayed by his opponents. The intended message is that Assad may be in trouble, but pushing him out of power requires more than the current militarized approach. Jalili’s very public display of solidarity is reflective of the fact that the hawks in Iran really believe that the fight in Syria is as much a public relations war as a physical war. Jalili’s visit was in many ways a direct response to the US government’s public statement that the flight of the Syrian prime minister suggests Assad’s imminent fall.

2. To highlight Tehran’s position that continued support for the removal of Assad through foreign-backed armed insurgency is a wrong policy that is being pursued by other regional players as well as the US. The policy has so far failed to remove the regime but even if it does succeed, it will underwrite the country’s disintegration with no one having control over the regional implications. Hillary Clinton may be dreaming about keeping the Syrian state intact while getting rid of the regime, but the Iranians are making the case that this is a highly unlikely scenario unless the Assad-must-go-contingency – with Erdogan at its heart – reevaluates its policy.

3. To make the case that the resolution of the Syria problem will be not be possible without Iran’s involvement. Again, note that this is premised on the belief that the current imbroglio and escalation in Syria is much more of a problem for Syria’s immediate neighbors (Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and even Israel) than Iran, which doesn’t have a border with Syria and more significantly, whose borders are not the result of the post-World War I imperial arrangement that is now in danger of being undermined.

Also note that Iran’s assessment of Turkey’s predicament is not that different from many US assessments regarding the threat that the lengthening of the conflict poses for neighboring countries. As Stephen Walt points out, it is difficult not to notice the slew of published opinions from the past couple of weeks – ranging from the always hawkish Washington Post editorial board to liberal interventionists (oops, sorry, I meant liberal internationalists) such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, to even the usually conflict-weary Nicholas Kristof – calling for increased US involvement in order to presumably prevent the post-Assad Syria from spinning out of control. In Walt’s words, for the US, the impulse for more action eventually wins even if in this case “we will almost certainly be fueling a sectarian war whose longer-term regional implications are deeply worrisome; we simply cannot resist the pressure to get involved.”

Unlike the United States, Iran does not have the resources to become directly involved in the expanding Syrian conflict. But it is trying to capitalize publicly on the costly but so far unsuccessful attempt to dislodge Assad. And for now, it is Turkish public opinion that is being conceived as a battleground.

Given the powerful allies that are prodding Turkey to remain committed to the “number-one goal…to hasten the end of the bloodshed and the Assad regime”, Iran’s play is a pretty weak one. But Erdogan’s Syria policy is also turning out to be a gamble that will only be redeemed if Syria does not disintegrate as a country.

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.