In the parliamentary elections of 2010, Turkey supported the seemingly secular Sunni dominated Iraqiya party led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, while the Islamic Republic of Iran backed the State of Law Coalition, which included Maliki’s Islamic Da’wa Party, and other Shiite Islamist groups that came under the umbrella of the National Iraqi Alliance Bloc. Maliki, however, managed to stay Prime Minister despite coming up short by two seats (less than the Iraqiya Bloc) and by including the radical pro-Iranian Shiite Sadrists and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.
The Sunni-Shiite fault lines are clearly visible in Iraq. Baghdad is allied with Iran in support of the Alawite regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, and has blocked the Arab League attempt to impose harsh sanctions against the Assad regime. Maliki has in fact labeled Turkey “a hostile state.” Erdogan, for his part, has accused Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki of acting “self-centered” and inciting tensions between Iraq’s Shiite majority and the Sunnis and Kurds.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu inaugurated his policy of “Zero Problems” with Turkey’s neighbors. It has led to a short lived rapprochement with Iran and Syria that included a pact to prevent Kurdish demands for cultural and political self-determination.
In Lebanon, another area of contest between Shia and Sunni Islam for dominance, FM Davutoglu had this to say, “Lebanon is like a small Middle East, with many communities like Christian, Sunni, Shia, and Druze. Therefore, the survival of Lebanon as a stable, prosperous state is a reflection, indicator of regional peace.” Iran however, has provided its Shiite co-religionists and especially the Hezbollah with major financial and military resources, helping Hezbollah to become the dominant party in Lebanon at the expense of the other communities including the Sunnis, Druse, and Christians.
Iran and Turkey compete for influence in Central Asia and the Caucuses, particularly in the bordering states of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The presence of 20 million ethnic Azeris in Iran, considered Southern Azerbaijan by the Baku (Azerbaijan’s capital) government has caused a great deal of friction between Tehran and Baku. Iran has tried to stem secessionist tendencies encouraged by the pro-western Baku government. Since the 1990’s, Iran has sided with “infidel” Christian Armenia in its conflict with majority Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan. Turkey on the other hand, has a close cultural and linguistic association with Azerbaijan, and a painful past with Armenia. Turkey has backed Azerbaijan politically, and has strong commercial ties with it.
Turkey’s subtle appeals to pan-Turkism in Central Asia, supposedly in Iran’s backyard has angered the Iranians who like Turks, seek to be the center and leader of the Muslim world. Both Turkey and Iran are pushing their model of an Islamic republic, and central Asia has become a focal point in this contest.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s attempt to bring Iran and Turkey together on Syria and other issues clashes with the ambitions of the two Middle Eastern behemoths. Iran and Turkey are vying for leadership in the greater Middle East just like in past times, and it is unlikely that their interests will converge. One mustn’t forget history – it tends to repeat itself.
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