In a recent interview with RT (Russian TV) Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, while in Beijing, called on Iran and Turkey to be included in the upcoming international meeting dedicated to ending the Syrian crisis. It is obviously clear to Lavrov, as it is to others, that Iran and Turkey have conflicting interests not only in Syria but elsewhere in the region.
In 2009 Turkey showed support for the regime of Iranian President Ahmadinejad despite the controversial reelection, and in 2010 Turkey voted against sanctions on Iran in the UN Security Council. But, Ankara has recently agreed to deploy a NATO missile early-warning system in south-eastern Turkey, which has infuriated the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The crisis in Syria has helped to expose the growing rivalry between these two nations and it is becoming apparent that whatever “honeymoon” that existed between the two nations in recent years is over. Between the 15th and 20th centuries, the sultans of Ottoman (Turkish) Empire and the shahs of the Persian (Safavid) Empire battled over territory and dominance in the Greater Middle East region. The Turkish-Persian rivalry is, in fact, the oldest power game in the Middle East. It now appears that this historical conflict (with relatively same-sized populations of 80 million) has taken on an added dimension: a clash between the Sunnis and Shias.
The decline of American influence in the Middle East under President Obama has intensified the power struggle between Iran and Turkey with both attempting to fill the vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Following the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk’s modern Turkey abandoned the Middle East in favor of the West, and it appeared as if this rivalry was over. Iran’s Shah Mohamed Reza also sought to modernize and “westernize” a decaying Iran. Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, who seemed to be bringing Ankara closer to Tehran has become increasingly resentful of EU posturing and has turned Turkey’s foreign policy trust towards the Middle East. By becoming a Middle Eastern player once again, a resurgent Ankara has emerged as the natural challenger to the other key Middle Eastern actor: nuclear-power and hegemony-seeking Iran.
In the wake of the Iranian Islamic revolution, the Sunni-Shiite conflict intensified and with Iran’s attempts to destabilize Sunni Gulf leaders and other pro-Western Arab states, Turkey has emerged as a counterweight to Shiite Iran revolutionary and hegemonic ambitions. The “Arab Spring,” which brought the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to power, and might do the same in Syria, is also in many ways a Sunni-Muslim revolution, and Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Erdogan seeks to hitch a ride on it as the champion of Sunni-Islam. What we’re seeing is an attempt by both Erdogan and Ahmadinejad to win over the Arab world.
Yahya Rahim Safavi, top military aide to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei charged, according to Fars News agency that, “The Americans, Israelis, and some European and Persian Gulf nations, in particular Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have delegated Turkey the task of achieving their goal to weaken or topple Bashar al-Assad’s government or make it surrender.”
In Syria, a proxy war is being conducted between Iran and Turkey, with Iran arming its Alawite client state headed up by Bashar Assad of Syria, and Turkey aiding the opposition Syrian Free Army, comprised largely of Sunni-Muslim defectors from the Syrian army. Turkey serves as the key regional opponent of the Assad regime while Iran stands with the Assad regime and provides it with funds, arms, and military personal. It is also reasonable to assume that Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, has played a supportive role in Assad’s bloody crackdown against the largely Sunni-Muslim opposition.
If in Syria the conflicting interests of Tehran and Ankara are more glaring, in Iraq they are no less intense, albeit, through political if not military proxies. Although both Turkey and Iran opposed the Iraq war, they have supported opposing camps in successive Iraqi elections. Iran’s dominance in Baghdad with the help of the Shiite-Muslim Nouri al-Maliki is countered by Turkey’s ever closer relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil (Northern Iraq).
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