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Opportunities for the United States in the Turkish-Iranian Rivalry

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hold a joint press conference. (Photo by Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images)

Although Turkey and Iran could forge a mutually beneficial relationship, broader strategic objectives are likely to keep them at odds with each other. The United States can use this situation to strengthen its ties with Turkey and work with its NATO ally to contain Iran’s influence.

Turkey and Iran arguably represent one of the greatest geopolitical rivalries in the Middle East. One month into U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, clearer signs are emerging to suggest that the relationship between the two powers will be shaped by increased discord and competition. While Iran is interested in growing its existing influence and reach, Turkey is emerging to challenge it in a variety of theaters, including Syria, Iraq, and the South Caucasus. Ankara would be interested in facilitating Tehran’s return to a renegotiated nuclear deal and could benefit from lucrative cross-border trade. Such potential gains are likely to be a distant secondary concern behind wider strategic objectives such as the broad containment of widespread Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq and the subversion of Kurdish aspirations. 

Analyses of Turkish-Iranian ties frequently overlook the dilemma that underscores the bilateral relationship: the possibility of both enhanced mutual economic prospects and strategic competition, with both states vying for ideological and regional dominance. Iran presents significant opportunities on two economic fronts for Ankara. First, as a net energy importer, Turkey demands a constant and diversified supply of oil and natural gas for domestic consumption. Iran’s existing pipeline network with Turkey is an additional avenue for reducing the country’s dependence on Russian sources. Second, the promulgation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, signed in July 2015, presented Turkey with unprecedented potential to engage in cross-border trade with Iran. The removal of economic sanctions following the adoption of the JCPOA facilitated the opening of trade and economic talks between the two governments. 

Iran’s relatively untapped market in comparison to Turkey’s highly stratified and globally integrated economy was full of lucrative export opportunities for Turkey in an array of sectors, including cars, construction, financial services, and appliance sales. The United States’ unilateral termination of the JCPOA and re-imposition of sanctions in 2018 disadvantaged Turkey, causing the abrupt end of a slew of commercial possibilities (a 50% drop between 2017 and 2019).

During former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan found cause to cooperate with Iran in several ways. Chief among these was the premise that the United States, along with a number of Gulf and Arab states, was interested in building and sustaining an anti-Iran and anti-Turkey alliance. The 2017 GCC blockade of Qatar solidified this view and facilitated Turkish, Iranian, and Qatari cooperation in an attempt to keep each of the three states relevant and visible in regional politics.

Furthermore, Turkey and Iran cooperated in a limited manner over the Syrian civil war and in northern Iraq, mainly with a shared goal of preventing the rise of Kurdish insurgency movements in the form of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Iranian counterpart PJAK – entities that threaten Turkey and Iran’s internal and regional security interests. Furthermore, and in the background, Ankara and Tehran maintain an ambivalence toward the development of increased Kurdish autonomy in Syria and Iraq. Both Turkey and Iran contain sizable Kurdish populations and go to great lengths to ensure that Kurdish activism in Syria and Iraq do not embolden their own Kurdish citizens to call for constitutional guarantees such as autonomy. 

Lingering Distrust Between Ankara and Tehran

Despite these seeming areas of mutual interest, the future facing these two rivals is likely to be typified by increasing discord. Commercial aspirations are not likely to remove the underlying suspicion and competition that undergirds the Turkish-Iranian relationship. The differences between the countries are likely to become more visible now that the new administration in Washington is bringing to the fore a new set of priorities, policy preferences, and the requisite levels of engagement. The Biden administration has sent initial signals that it will cease the previous administration’s policies toward Iran, primarily with the aim of coercing Iran into a renegotiated nuclear deal. Turkey, on the other hand, has decided to pursue its regional aspirations by dealing more closely with Russia in an attempt to increase its regional footprint and rein in Iran’s influence. 

Following Turkey’s interventionist moves in Nagorno-Karabakh, support for the Tripoli-based Libyan factions, military operations in Syria, and escalatory stance in the Eastern Mediterranean, both Moscow and Tehran realize that Ankara is flexing its muscles in multiple regions. Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan and continued posturing over Iraq and Syria pose more concerns for Iran’s leaders, as these actions are perceived as direct interventions in Iran’s sphere of influence and/or interests. In other words, Turkey has established a foothold in the geopolitical future of the South Caucasus, but it has done so without Iran’s acquiescence. Furthermore, after the desire to topple the Assad regime, Ankara will be more focused on ensuring the erosion of Kurdish power within Syria as well as dampening the influence of Iranian-backed militias. 

To further curtail Iranian influence across the region, Turkey is seeking to rekindle positive relations with Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and even, to an extent, Israel. This is why a recent meeting between the Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers at the end of January was pessimistic. Despite the positive rhetoric promising a reinvigorated bilateral future, the Iranians remain suspicious of Erdogan’s intentions to undermine them. At a celebratory speech in Baku marking Azerbaijani victories in Nagorno-Karabakh, Erdogan recited a poem, widely interpreted by Iran as a signal that Turkey was sympathetic to the breaking away of an Azeri-majority province of Iran.

Northern Iraq is the perfect location to underpin the potential conflict that could erupt between Turkey and Iran. A botched military operation to rescue 13 Turkish hostages from the hands of the PKK in Sinjar in February resulted in their assassination, stoking Erdogan’s anger and therefore the anger of the Turkish population. Turkey is threatening some type of military intervention in retaliation for the death of its soldiers, but it is unclear what the positions of the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are. What is clear is the unified opposition by all Iran-aligned militias in the region, which have threatened a strong military response to any Turkish action. Turkey is not only interested in devastating the PKK in Iraq (and keeping it from establishing a relationship with the KRG) but is also focused on cutting off Iran’s militias from gaining access to Syria, reducing their influence in Iraq, and establishing a firmer security corridor along its Iraqi and Syrian border. 

It is too early to state at this point how effective Ankara’s moves to contain Iran will be. Iran’s regional presence and militia networks across the Middle East are far more entrenched and experienced. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, for example, is experienced in operating in gray zone conflicts across the region to undermine Western (read: American) interests. Its capabilities were once again clearly demonstrated in a rocket attack in Erbil that killed one U.S. military contractor in February. Additionally, Iran maintains the ability to infiltrate and influence political governance systems. This is especially true in the cases of Lebanon and Iraq, where Tehran maintains a solid influence with outfits such as Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilization Forces. In the case of the former, for example, Iran has vast experience in financing and provisioning Hezbollah and has ensured its status as an integral part of Lebanon’s political domain. 

In comparison, Turkey’s ability to project influence is less dependent on deploying militias in places such as Libya and is more situated in established relationships, as in the case of Qatar (Turkey’s only state actor ally in the Arab world). Turkey’s influence in the region has mostly been a reflection of its strategic partnership with the United States and active membership in NATO – though it is increasingly engaged in unilateral actions. 

What is worth pondering is the degree to which Ankara will wield Iran as leverage to get what it wants out of the United States. The Biden administration is keen to reenter into a nuclear agreement with Iran – a JCPOA version 2.0 – while hoping to curb the influence of Iranian proxy groups and their influence across the Levant. This is ultimately something that Turkey would favor, as the country is desperate to find alternatives to revivify its stagnant and ailing economy. 

Erdogan is convinced that in order for a new deal to be brokered with Tehran, Washington will require Ankara’s cooperation, even facilitation; otherwise, Erdogan could scuttle such initiatives because of his existing relationship with Iran. He assumes that without his affirmation and cooperation, Washington will find it harder to convince Iran to sign a new nuclear deal. In return, Turkey is looking to the U.S. to bring it back into the F-35 consortium, remove the sanctions imposed by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, and cooperate over Syria in ways that Turkey favors (i.e., ending support for the Syrian Kurds). 

Opportunities for the U.S.

This outlook signals that the United States’ approach to working with Turkey in the Middle East is purely transactional, and Washington should tailor its policies to reflect that. Turkey’s participation and cooperation in convincing Iran to reenter the nuclear deal (with support from other powers, such as Qatar, for example) would send the region an important signal. The deal would not be just another Western imposition upon Iran. Turkey could be offered renewed cooperation with the U.S., whereby the Pentagon could re-initiate its intelligence-sharing program with Turkey as it pertains to combatting the PKK, which the Trump administration terminated in February 2020. The original JCPOA contained virtually nothing to contain Iran’s regional dominance. A renewed spirit of cooperation between Washington and Ankara could allow the NATO allies to work together and determine specific policies to reduce Iran’s existing networks in both Iraq and Syria. 

All this could be hard to achieve, however, without a broader rapprochement between the U.S. and Turkey on existing bilateral disputes. Without giving up the Russian S-400s on Turkish soil to the satisfaction of U.S. and NATO allies, the U.S. should be reluctant to cooperate at a high level. This should be a firm red line for the Biden administration. Following the removal of the S-400s, the U.S. government would be at greater ease to negotiate and discuss other areas of contention, such as cooperation over Syria. 

The overarching imperative for the Biden administration should be to enter into a discussion with Turkey with one major question in mind: How can the U.S. and Turkey work together to re-establish trust and work substantively with one another and within NATO? This is nothing less than a gargantuan effort and will not be easy, or even likely. The transactional nature of foreign policymaking that Erdogan has come to practice, in place of substantively engaging with and rebuilding Turkey’s decayed relationships with NATO, the U.S., and its European partners, is an expression of the de-institutionalized, one-man rule that characterizes present-day Turkey. 

Dr. Sinan Ciddi is an expert on Turkey’s domestic politics and its foreign policy. Dr. Ciddi currently serves as an Associate Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University’s Command and Staff College as well as an Adjunct Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service (SFS). Ciddi is also the author of  Kemalism in Turkish Politics: The Republican People’s Party: Secularism and Nationalism (Routledge, January 2009). 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the Newlines Institute.

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