Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Turkey and Iran: Cold Conflict, Raging Frontier

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold a joint press conference following the 7th Meeting of the Turkey-Iran High Level Cooperation Council in Tehran, Iran on July 19, 2022. Ali Balikci / Anadolu Agency via AFP)

Hussein Ali Alzoubi

Turkish and Iranian interests conflict internationally in four areas: Iraq, Syria, Azerbaijan, and foreign policy related to Israel. The rivalry between Turkey and Iran flourishes in areas raging with internal conflicts. It has, however, not come to direct conflict or collision.

The High Tension in Iraq

Iraq is the most critical arena of conflict between Turkey and Iran, particularly since both have a historical presence in the country. This presence is reflected in the demographic and religious composition of Iraqi society. Iran is close to Iraq’s Shiites and carries the Safavid state’s legacy that embodies everything Shiites stand for.

On the other hand, Turkey has a history with the Sunnis, starting before the establishment of the Ottoman Empire. The two sides already faced each other 12 times between 1514 and 1823. In most wars, Iraq has been either the target or the arena resulting from its geography, politics and religion.

The religious dimension became more evident following Shah Ismail Safavi’s adoption of Shiism as the official Iranian doctrine after Sufi Sunnism had been dominant in the country.

Since the Arabs stopped being the dominant decision-makers in the Abbasid state, Iran and Turkey became leading players in drawing Iraq’s geographical and political maps. This dynamic was revived after the US withdrawal from Iraq left a power vacuum that was filled by Iran.

When US and Iranian interests in Iraq still aligned, Iranian ambition outweighed Turkish ambition because of the composition of Iraqi society and Tehran’s theocratic nature. While Turkey focused on controlling the Kurds and, in specific, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) presence in northern Iraq, Iran penetrated Iraq’s politics, intelligence and military. Tehran capitalised on the Iraqi leaders and parties that originated mainly in Iran, such as the Dawa Party and the Badr Organisation.

In contrast, Turkey has relied on Sunni parties for its alliances. Turkey has made an effort to unite Sunni forces in recent elections. Iraqi MP Misha’an al-Juburi said the alliances were established in coordination with Turkey, specifically with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

However, the ideological nature of Iraq’s Shiite parties gave Iran an advantage over Turkey, especially since Shiite parties follow the doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih or guardianship of the Islamic jurist.

Nineveh Governorate is the two sides’ primary arena. Ankara views Nineveh as its closest province geographically and demographically. The province’s population is primarily Sunni, and includes a large number of Turkmen. The province is all the more critical because of its proximity to Iraqi Kurdistan — a thorn in the side of both parties. Kurdish parties opposing Ankara and Tehran are based in this region. The most prominent of which are the anti-Turkish PKK and the anti-Iranian Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan. On the other hand, Nineveh borders Syria, which is a vital component in Iran’s project in the Mashriq region.

In April 2022, Turkey launched Operation Claw-Lock in Nineveh against the PKK, which coincided with an Iraqi attempt to impose control over Sinjar in the same province. The Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces led the Iraqi attempt. According to Rudaw Media Network, Turkey has established 40 military bases inside Iraqi Kurdistan in the past years. At the same time, the federal nature of the Iraqi state has stopped the Iraqi army from entering Kurdish areas.

Smoke rises over the headquarters in the Koy Sanjaq district of Erbil, Iraq
Smoke rises over the headquarters following an attack in the Koy Sanjaq district of Erbil, Iraq on September 28, 2022. Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched attacks on the Kurdish region of northern Iraq targeting armed rebel groups. Fariq Faraj/ Anadolu Agency via AFP.

Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and many pro-Iranian politicians proclaimed anti-Turkish rhetoric in response to the operation. Concurrently, rockets were fired at the Turkish military base in Bashiqa.

Claw-Lock also coincided with the renewed efforts of Turkey and the Kurdistan Democratic Party to establish a gas pipeline that would secure the export of natural gas from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey and Europe. This may have become even more urgent as alternatives to Russian gas are pursued globally.

Turkish interests preceded the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Kurdish Kar Group signed an agreement in December 2021 to secure a natural gas pipeline to Duhok, 35 km from the Turkish border. In February 2022, the Kurdish and Turkish authorities announced their intention to extend this pipeline to Turkey.

The export of gas to Europe via Turkey has made the PKK’s removal of critical importance to Ankara. Ankara fears that the PKK will target the pipelines as the group has previously targeted the Kirkuk–Ceyhan Oil Pipeline, which exports Iraqi oil to Turkey.

The completion of the pipeline is not something that Iran can ignore. The implementation of this project reduces Turkey’s dependence on Iranian gas. It is worth noting that Turkey’s gas imports from Iran reach 28.5 million cubic metres daily.

Jalal Selmi, a researcher specialising in international relations, believes that the sudden halt of Iranian gas exports to Turkey during the snowstorm in early 2022 may not have been an unintentional technical malfunction, as was stated by Iran. According to Selmi, this can be read as an Iranian message to remind Turkey of how much it still needs Iranian gas and that Ankara cannot exploit its geographical location to transport gas to Europe without coordinating with Tehran.

Iran’s messages were not limited to Turkey but also extended to Iraqi Kurdistan. In March 2022, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced the bombing of areas in Erbil, claiming that Mossad had a headquarters there. These bombings, of course, carry more than one message. The first message relates to Iran’s objection to the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s forged alliances that formed the Kurdistan Government of Iraq. The second message relates to the gas project. Following the shift in Iran’s politics, which coincided with protests sweeping the country, the bombing became continuous.


Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (R) receives his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad in the capital Tehran
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (R) receives his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad in the capital Tehran, on July 20, 2022. ATTA KENARE / AFP

The boiling rivalry between Iran and Turkey is not limited to Iraq, as Syria is another country where the two countries’ interests collide, in particular since 2011. Prior to that, both countries were present in Syria in different ways. While the Turks have excelled economically, the Iranians have strengthened their intelligence ties and religious presence.

As the protests in Syria began, Iran sided with the Syrian regime politically and militarily through military advisers and affiliated militias. As a result, Iran found itself at odds with Turkey, which declared its support for the Syrian opposition.

The Iranian presence in Syria has surpassed the Turkish since, at a regional level, the stakes are much higher for Iran. Iran could use its presence in Syria as a bargaining chip on essential topics. This includes the nuclear file and its relations with major powers such as Russia and the US and regional players including Turkey and Israel.

Ankara considers northeastern Syria – which borders Turkey – and the Kurdish powers that it sees as an extension of the PKK, as a vulnerability. The northwest of Syria is a realm for Turkish influence through pro-Ankara Syrian opposition factions. This influence extends to Aleppo’s countryside, except for the Shiite areas of Nubl and al-Zahraa.

Iran cannot afford to cede its presence in this enclave, especially after it established itself inside the city of Aleppo. The Iranian presence there may explain Tehran’s opposition to a possible Turkish operation in northern Syria, which numerous Turkish officials have announced could commence at any moment.

This comes at a time when Iran is not open to normalising relations between Turkey and the Syrian regime, as this might lead the Syrian regime to adopt the Abraham Accords on the normalisation of relations with Israel.

The Iranian position is based on press leaks that have indicated the existence of secret channels between Tel Aviv and Damascus, something that Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid has not denied.

Relations with Israel

Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) shake hands during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey
Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) shake hands during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, on June 23, 2022. Adem ALTAN / AFP

The third arena of confrontation between Ankara and Tehran concerns the relations of the region’s countries with Israel. Relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv have witnessed unprecedented intelligence cooperation. This led to the arrest of Iranian cells connected to the assassination of Israelis in Turkey, Ankara announced.

Decreasing the tension with Tel Aviv was preceded by lowering tensions with Saudi Arabia, UAE and, to some extent, Egypt, indicating the formation of a new coalition in the region.

Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations believes that this shift in relations will consequently increase pressure on Assad and pave the way for change in central and southern Syria, where Iran’s presence is dominant. Israel publicly stated that it would not allow this presence to continue, aligning with the British envoy to Syria’s recent statement that the West and Israel have realised that the regime cannot be toppled by external pressure and that it is best to change the regime’s behaviour.

According to the envoy, Israel’s strikes on Iranian targets in Syria are the best approach.

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written by
Kawthar Metwalli
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