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Turkey - Iran Tensions

10/04/2012 | by Karmon, Ely (Dr.)  

The recent visit of PM Erdogan to Iran during which he passed a message from U.S. President Barack Obama to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which signaled that the United States would agree to an Iranian civilian nuclear program if they proved they were not developing a nuclear bomb, seems to have failed to produce positive results. It also did not bring any understanding between the two leaders about the worsening situation in Syria.

Tensions between Turkey and Iran rose after a senior Iranian figure spoke out against Turkey hosting the nuclear talks following the meeting in Istanbul of the “Friends of Syria” group of countries to which Iran was not invited, for obvious reasons, as Iran is Bashar al-Assad's closest ally.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on April 5 that Iran’s proposal to hold talks on its disputed nuclear program in Damascus, Baghdad or China instead of Istanbul was insincere. Iran accepted only at the last minute to hold the nuclear talks in Istanbul on April 13.

On this background, the influential pro-Islamist daily Today's Zaman has recently published an interview with its founding editor-in-chief, Bülent Keneş, titled "Iranian influence in Turkey at all-time high." The interview was published as a kind of promo after the publication of Keneş' recent book "Iran: A Threat or an Opportunity?" The author claims that the book, based on his doctoral thesis, is an academic-based book that "does not state any claims as to whether Iran is an opportunity or a threat for Turkey."

But in the interview itself Iran is described as a major threat to Turkish interests, including for its internal stability; it hints that Russia could ally with Iran against Turkish interests ("Russian geopolitics depicts Iran as a partner and Turkey as a threat"); and stresses the Iranian role in the enhancement of the Sunni-Shia divide.

Interestingly, Keneş completed his dissertation, “Change and Continuity in Iranian Foreign Policy (1979-2011)” under the supervision of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. In view of the pro-AKP editorial line of Today's Zaman and his personal relations to Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, his views probably represent the thinking in some of the Turkish governmental circles.

On the same issue see Today's Zaman article "Turkey’s Iran issue: The end of Turkish romanticism,". For a comprehensive picture on the standing of Turkey's PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP government see Hugh Pope's article "Erdoğan's Decade,".

In a June 2012 Jerusalem Post article titled "A devil’s advocate view of ‘new’ Mideast", I stressed that one of the results of the so-called "Arab Spring" is the growing competition between Turkey and Iran for hegemony in the Middle East, on the one hand and the escalation in sectarian strife in the region, specifically the possibility of enhanced Kurdish assertiveness, especially in Turkey.

For an analysis of the complex Kurdish issue see Ofra Benjio’s article “The Kurdish quiet spring”.