The Middle East Channel

How Iran really sees Turkey

Tehran initially viewed the rise of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey with much enthusiasm. It has turned into a nightmare. Turkey's shift against the Assad regime in Syria, and its manifest ideological appeal in a changing Middle East, now has Iranian leaders viewing Ankara as a key part of a U.S. scheme with the Arab States in the Persian Gulf aimed directly at them.

The ascendance of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP initially thrilled Tehran, which hoped that as Turkey moved toward Islamic government it would be ideologically closer to Iran. Conservative Iranian commentators argued that the AKP's goal was an Islamic republic, even if it were to be achieved through elections rather than a revolution. Iran looked at Turkey's special relationship with the West and East not as a threat, but as an instrument to reduce Tehran's isolation and protect its interests. During several meetings with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gull from 2006 to 2010, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei congratulated Turkey's political and economic achievements and emphasized that the AKP's move toward the Islamic world would "strengthen" Muslim countries, while further domestically and regionally popularizing the AKP. Also, Iran was eager to use Turkey's new stance to its advantage. Iran welcomed Turkey's mediation, along with Brazil's, on the nuclear issue in 2010, even if that gambit ultimately failed.

But then the landscape began to shift. Much to the surprise of the Iranians, Turkey became a regional competitor, and its model of moderate Islamic politics proved more popular than Iran's hard-line approach. Turkey turned not to be a proxy for Iranian or U.S. interests, ultimately pursuing a foreign policy all its own, without compunction for the sensitivities of the Iranian leadership.

In May of 2010, the Gaza Flotilla incident erupted after the Israeli military intercepted the Turkish supported "Gaza Freedom Flotilla." In their condemnations of the Israeli attacks on the humanitarian ships bound for Gaza, Iranian leaders expressed support for Palestinians, but they were nearly silent on the leading role of Turkey in the confrontation. Instead, Iranian media and officials expressed concerns that Iran's role in the incident was not prominent. Anxious to reassert an Iranian presence in the Palestinian issue, some government organizations announced that Iran would soon send its own humanitarian ships to Gaza. Iran's Red Crescent Society even set the date of the departure, but the ships were never launched, as the country was not seeking a direct confrontation with Israel. A commentator came up with a telling suggestion: Iran should grant citizenship to the supporters of the Palestinians who die during such humanitarian incidents and help their families. It was one way of inserting Iran into the narrative. It did not happen.

Then came the Arab Spring, which according to Iran, is a misnomer: not Arab, but rather Islamic; not a spring, but like the Islamic Revolution in Iran, permanent. For Iran's Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the Arab Spring is in fact an "Islamic awakening," the flowering of seeds that were sown three decades earlier by the Iranian Revolution of 1979. According to Khamanei, the uprisings signal the time for Iran to enter the scene as Muslims rise up to kick out one Western puppet after another.

But it was Turkey, not Iran, which seized the moment. Tehran watched in horror as Erdogan was received rapturously during his post-revolution trips to Arab countries. His advocacy of the "secular" model of government, which respected Islam set off alarm bells not just in Iran's political capital, Tehran, but also in the religious city of Qom. Both the political and religious establishments in Iran protested. Even "moderate" ayatollahs attacked Turkey's "liberal" and "Western" interpretations of Islam and warned that Iran had fallen behind Turkey in the region. Their voices were initially louder than the voices of Tehran's government officials.  

What sent Iran over the edge was Turkey's shift on Syria. Prime Minister Erdogan went from being a good friend of President Bashar al-Assad, to telling him to either reform or he would soon be ousted. Turkey has hosted conferences for the Syrian opposition and is now reportedly sheltering anti-regime fighters. In response, Tehran sent several messages to Ankara, making it clear that Syria is its "redline," and warned Erdogan not to cross it by backing the anti-Assad opposition. Turkey did not heed Iran's warning. Instead it announced that it would install NATO's radar system, which is said to be a shield again Iran's ballistic missiles, in Turkish territory. Iran's tone then became more aggressive and even threatening. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other political and military officials warned that Iran would be forced to respond accordingly since the NATO radar system is to protect its enemies.

Conservative columnists then opened fire. They criticized Turkey for being a Sunni dictatorship that did not represent the other "50 percent of Turkey's population," meaning the Alevis and the Kurds. However, they failed to mention that Iran and Turkey are closely cooperating over the challenges posed by their Kurdish minorities. These commentators, who usually voice trends within Iran's establishment, implicitly warned that Turkey should be aware that it could easily become unstable. Conservative media close to the office of the Supreme Leader argued that Shiite Alevis, who consists of "27 percent" of the population crave for Ankara to move closer to Tehran and Damascus, while Turkey's Kurds are angry at the "brutality" of the Turkish army. Pointing to Turkey's fault lines, they added that its people yearn for the implementation of Islamic law, but that the AKP has only provided them with a "veneer of Islamism." Moreover, Turkey, unlike Iran and Egypt, lacks a long tradition of jurisprudential scholarship and therefore it does not have nearly the intellectual strength to lead the Islamic world. Last but not least, the Arabs cannot forget the "bitter" memories of the Ottoman period. Thus, Ankara's euphoric moment cannot last since the new Egypt will once again reassert itself and balance Turkey.

The new Iranian narrative now fingers Turkey as part of a bigger U.S.-Israel-Saudi plot to derail the new wave of Islamic awakening. Since the United States is losing its puppets (Mubarak, Ben Ali, etc.) in the region, it has decided to use the Turkish model as a damage control measure. The AKP is also a new tool the United States would like to use for its regime change policy in Iran after the failure of the Green Movement in 2009, the argument continues. This is a sensitive point to make, however. The Iranian government is aware of the ideological affinity between Iran's reformist opposition and the AKP. Although they were born in diametrically opposed political systems, both strive to strike a balance between Islam and democracy. Iranian leaders fear that the AKP may inflict a similar damage to their legitimacy as the Iranian reform movement has. They acknowledge that the reformists, although defeated for now, managed to crack the heart of the establishment and bring many die-hard supporters of the regime to their side or neutralize them. Now, the AKP could create a similar legitimacy crisis for the Islamic government on a regional level, weakening Iran's soft power and undermining its popularity in the Muslim world.

There was a time when Iran would rely on its revolutionary ideology to project power. The Islamic government now finds itself relying on using its power to project ideology, to prove its revolution was right, and to demonstrate its message was just. In a recent speech, Ayatollah Khamenei claimed that the world is entering a "historic turn," in which the Islamic Republic should be the model for all countries on earth. But that could become a cruel prophecy indeed if the model they were looking for turns out to be Turkish.

Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar teaches Iranian politics at George Washington University. He is a scholar at the Middle East Institute.


The Middle East Channel

Homs under fire as Syria agrees to Arab League peace plan

Homs came under heavy fire as the Syrian government agreed to Arab League peace plan

Violence in Syria has continued a day after Bashar al-Assad's regime agreed to the Arab League's peace initiative as tanks with heavy artillery opened fire in a built up area of Homs killing at least five people. Qatar's Foreign Minister announced Syria's acceptance of the Arab League's initiative at an emergency meeting to discuss the situation on Wednesday in Cairo. In accordance with the Arab League plan, the Syrian government committed to withdraw the army from cities and residential areas and end all violence against protesters, release all political prisoners, and ease restrictions on media. It also agreed to begin talks with the opposition within the next two weeks. Even prior to yesterday's attack, the opposition was skeptical. A U.S. based member of the Syrian National Council called the agreement by the Assad regime merely "an attempt to buy more time." However, a political analyst at the Lebanese American University of Beirut said it would take time to judge if the intensity of violence is decreasing. Sami Baroudi said, "You can't simply turn things off. If there is going to be a withdrawal of the army ... that cannot take place within hours."


  • Rescue efforts saved nearly all 1,200 passengers on an Egyptian-Jordanian ferry that caught fire on the Red Sea.
  • Two bombs targeting Sunni militia killed six people and injured dozens in the Iraqi city of Baquba meanwhile three motorcycle bombs detonated near cafes killing 12 people and wounding 70.
  • The Israeli navy says it will "take any necessary action" to prevent the entry of an Irish and a Canadian ship that set off from Turkey aiming to "break the siege" on Gaza.
  • After recent Israeli ballistic missile tests, a Haaretz-Dialog poll found that Israelis (both Jewish and Arab) are almost evenly split on an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
  • As the International Atomic Energy Agency prepared to release information about Iran's nuclear program, President Obama said pressure must be maintained on Iran. 

Daily Snapshot

Pro-democracy protesters, holding a huge pre-Baath era Syrian flag, demonstrate against President Bashar al-Assad's regime outside the Arab league headquarters in Cairo where a ministerial meeting was held on November 2, 2011 to discuss the situation in Syria, ruled by Assad's Baath party since 1963. Damascus fully accepted a plan to end nearly eight months of bloodshed, according to a League official (MOHAMMED HOSSAM/AFP/Getty Images).

Arguments & Analysis

'The overblown Islamist threat' (Marwan Muasher, International Herald Tribune)

"Over the next few years, other parties will have a chance to develop in Tunisia and Islamists are likely to get a lower percentage of the vote next time around. They will start winning votes in relation to their actual strength on the ground. While they may be part of leading coalitions in various countries, they are unlikely to gain power outright in any country. In order to ensure peaceful political competition between Islamists and other political parties, the new Arab democracies need to enshrine two principles in their new constitutions: pluralism and a peaceful political landscape that is free of armed groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Pluralism would ensure that neither Islamists nor anyone else could come to power and then deny the right of political organization to others. And peaceful transfers of power are essential for any stable democracy. Countries in transition have no choice but to open up the political system. Excluding and marginalizing Islamists out of fear will only strengthen their appeal."

'Arm sales to Bahrain under the scanner' (Joel Beinin, Al Jazeera English)

"In the months before the protests began in February, the US sold more than $200m in weapons and equipment to Bahrain, including $760,000 for firearms. Some of the ammunition the military and police fired at non-violent pro-democracy protesters may very well have been made and supplied by the US. In his May Middle East policy address, Obama proclaimed that, "The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders - whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran." It remains to be seen whether this applies to residents of Manama and other Arab capitals, where relationships between autocrats and the US government remain reliably stable, and military alliances have historically trumped human rights."

'AKP, terrorists, and earthquakes: Turkey's never-ending Kurdish question' (Djene Rhys Bajalan, Open Democracy)

"Ultimately, meaningful change will take strong, and more importantly brave, leadership. Such leadership will have to integrate the representatives of Kurdish nationalism into the peace process, while simultaneously selling this to the Turkish public. It is unclear whether the AKP can do this. AKP's success has been based on its domination of the Turkish centre ground, and if that centre ground is against making concessions to the Kurds, it will be hard for the party to move any further than it has, even if it wants to. While Turkey seems to be, in many ways, closer to a permanent resolution of the Kurdish question than at any time in its history, there is still a long way to go, and the most difficult steps, including making peace with those with whom the state has been at war have yet to be taken. However, the long term benefits for Turkey of peace with the Kurds far outweigh any short term political discomfort." 

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