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[ANALYSIS] Turkish-Iranian rivalry intensifies over the Middle East

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The wealthy Gulf states have enjoyed protection afforded by the US government for decades. However, recent events, such as Iran’s assault on Saudi oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in 2019 and the Iran-aligned Houthi group’s attack on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2022, have exposed the vulnerability of the Arab states in the region. With the United States’ reduced dependence on Middle Eastern oil, its priorities have shifted, leading to decreased support for these Arab regimes. This change in US policy has created a power vacuum in the region, which the Iranian military is attempting to exploit, seeking to increase its influence and further its strategic objectives.

Turkey, another force with historical and religious ties to the region, is increasing its military presence. Despite tensions between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and US leaders, Turkey remains a powerful NATO member and is expected to play a more active security role against Iran and its allies such as Russia and China in the Middle East.

Turkey and Iran share similarities in terms of military power and populations. According to Turkey’s official narrative, the two countries have maintained good relations and have not been in conflict since the 1639 Treaty of Qasr-i Shirin. However, the reality is far from positive. The predecessors of modern Turkey and Iran have shared an incredibly complex relationship for a millennium. Turkic tribes began conquering Iranian lands in the 10th century, and several Turkic dynasties ruled what is now modern-day Iran. The Great Seljuks, a Turco-Persian, Sunni Muslim Empire, ruled Iran from the early 10th century to the end of the 11th century, but strong Persian cultural autonomy remained dominant within the empire. The Safavid Empire was established primarily by Turkic tribes, which included the Azeri population, originating from regions that stretched from Anatolia to the Caucasus. However, the Safavids enforced the Shia branch of Islam throughout the Middle East, which led to conflicts with the Sunni Ottoman Empire. Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid Dynasty, was defeated by his Sunni rival, Ottoman Sultan Selim I, in 1514. This war increased hostilities between the Sunni Ottoman Empire and the Shia Safavid Empire, despite both rulers being at least partly of Turkic origin.

Contrary to Turkey’s official narrative, the Ottoman and Iranian empires have had many conflicts between them since the Treaty of Qasr-i Shirin. Turks and Persians fought against each other in a full-scale war in 1733, when the Iranians attempted to take Baghdad from the Ottomans. The Iranian Zand Dynasty attacked the Ottoman Empire in 1775 to capture Basra, and the conflict only ended in 1821. The new Turkish Republic, founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923, maintained a good relationship with Iran until the establishment of the Islamic regime in Tehran in 1979. Atatürk was a close friend of Iran’s Reza Shah, who greatly admired Ataturk’s Western reforms. However, Iran’s Islamic regime has been provoking the Turkish government by supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) since its establishment in 1984. The armed group, fighting for independent or autonomous Kurdish rule in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeastern region, has been listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and much of the international community. The PKK carried out numerous attacks in Turkey during the ’80s and ’90s, crossing the border from their bases in Iran, such as Haj Umran, Dar Khala, Benchul, Mandali and Sirabad. Tehran’s Islamic regime also supported Islamist terrorist cells in Turkey, and according to reports and allegations, these Iranian-backed terrorists assassinated several secular Turkish figures, including theologian Bahriye Üçok, journalists Çetin Emeç and Uğur Mumcu and academic Ahmet Taner Kışlalı as well as many others.

Erdoğan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has established strong ties with the Iranian regime despite the political unease between Ankara and Tehran. In 2014 Erdoğan told Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that Iran was like a “second home” for him. Erdoğan’s former deputy prime minister Beşir Atalay and Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan are known to have close ties to the Iranian regime. Although Erdoğan and some of his party leaders have established personal relationships with the Iranian rulers, Turkey and Iran continue to support different warring parties and political and armed groups in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, the Caucasus region and other locations.

Iran is unhappy with Turkey’s recent involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. The AKP has pursued an active foreign policy in the region since the Arab Spring and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, with Ankara increasing its military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, controlling several Syrian towns along its border and maintaining military bases in Qatar and Somalia. Iran is also displeased with Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan against Armenia, a country that shares a border with Iran.

Until recently, Erdoğan had tense relations with Sunni Arab states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but Ankara has managed to normalize its ties with these countries. Turkey criticizes the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Lebanon disturbs Iran, which backs Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah. Furthermore, Iran supports Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey backs the Free Syrian Army and other rebels against Assad’s forces.

Turkey also faces significant challenges in developing close ties with the Iraqi government as Iran established strong influence over Baghdad following the start of the US withdrawal in 2010. As Turkey and Iran continue to pursue competing interests in the region, it remains to be seen how their complex relationship will evolve and impact the broader Middle East.

America’s diminishing dominance in the Middle East and increased activity from China and Russia have initiated a new chapter in the historic struggle between Turkey and Iran. US dependence on Middle Eastern oil has declined since its oil production began to rise in 2018. Currently, the US produces more oil than Iran, Iraq and the UAE combined. The Middle East produces about a third of the world’s oil, and China has become the main importer of oil from the Arab region. Saudi Arabia is now China’s largest oil supplier, and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit held in Riyadh last year marked the highest-level diplomatic event between China and the Arab world since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

In his address to the GCC in December 2022, Chinese leader Xi Jinping stated that “China and the GCC countries will work together on issues spanning finance, science and technology, aerospace, language and culture.” China needs to deepen its relations with Saudi Arabia to further integrate its Belt and Road Initiative, while Saudi Arabia requires China’s technology to achieve its Vision 2030. China has also begun importing oil from Iran, a country under Western sanctions. Iran is currently the third-largest supplier of oil to China, following Saudi Arabia and Russia.

It is obvious that Xi Jinping does not plan to merely import oil from the Middle East but aims to shape the region’s politics, as it is crucial to China’s global trade. Xi’s mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia was a significant political gain for Beijing against the Western powers, which have heavily sanctioned Iran’s Islamist regime for the last three decades. Russia has also become an important partner for Iran since Moscow has suffered under heavy Western sanctions since the start of its war on Ukraine. Russian gas producer Gazprom signed a memorandum of understanding worth around $40 billion in July last year. Furthermore, Iran, which possesses the world’s second-largest gas reserves, applied last year to join the BRICS group comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Although Turkey and Iran are unlikely to engage in an all-out war in the near future and will continue to enjoy their close cultural and increasing trade relations, the competition between the two neighbors is expected to intensify in the Middle East as new global players take sides in the energy-rich region. Turks and Iranians could become the new military actors in a proxy war between the Western and Russia-China blocs in the Middle East.

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