At a military parade in Baku to mark Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in last fall’s fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recited a nationalist Azerbaijani poem that refers to the forceful and artificial separation of the two sides of the Aras river, effectively dividing Azerbaijan from Iran’s ethnic Azerbaijani province. This caused a political and emotional firestorm in Tehran and attracted Iranian condemnation and rancor. Led by Foreign Minister Javid Zarif, many Iranian officials took to Twitter to lambast Erdoğan and what they saw as pan-Turkish irredentism and a claim on Iran’s territory. In response, Turkish officials condemned Iran’s “aggressive” and “baseless” accusations.
Set against the close ties between Turkey and Iran in recent years—for example, their close working relationship alongside Russia on Syria will be seen in the next round of the Sochi process on February 16—such high-level acrimonious exchanges came across as surprising to many.
In recent years there have been many similarities between the foreign policies of Turkey and Iran. Both countries have adopted different versions of “resisting Western designs” for the region. Iran’s narrative is well-known: resisting the U.S.-Israeli designs for the region through an “axis of resistance.” For Turkey, the political and territorial gains by Kurds in Syria and Iraq during the fight against Islamic State have reignited long-held elite fears or paranoia that the United States and the West were midwifing Kurdish statehood. (Even though U.S. opposition was arguably one of the most critical factors in the Iraqi Kurds’ botched independence referendum of 2017.)
Turkey and Iran also use a large pool of militias as their “boots on the ground” in different conflict zones. Equipped with an ideology, narrative, and certain political reading of the world, Iran’s militia network appears to be better organized and politically more coherent. In contrast, devoid of any overarching political goals, shared worldviews, and grand narratives, Turkey’s militia network operates more as mercenaries in conflict zones such as Syria and Libya.
And, as two post-imperial states, Iran and Turkey have blended the language of insecurity and grandeur into their foreign policy narratives. The boundaries between what is defensive and what is offensive in their foreign and security policies are not clear cut.
Factors That Brought Turkey and Iran Together
In the last half decade, three factors have been crucial in the formation of closer relations between Turkey and Iran. First, both previously believed that a regional order was in the making that would be premised on closer cooperation between the Gulf states, particularly the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel, and supported by the United States. They expected that this prospective order would be anti-Iran, anti-Turkey, and anti-political Islam, which provided a larger framework for their cooperation.
Reflecting this reading of regional politics, Turkey has had two Iran policies instead of one. One concerned Iran’s behavior in the immediate neighborhood, such as in Syria and Iraq, which was often in competition with Turkey as they supported different alliance structures and pursued contrasting geopolitical aspirations. The second policy considered the larger geopolitical context of the Middle East and perceived a bigger threat from the regional aspirations of the anti-Iran camp than from those of Iran. Turkey saw this camp’s idea of regional order as not only excluding Iran and its militia network, but also excluding Turkey and its political Islamic allies.
Apart from this broader framework, two other developments were critical in facilitating Turkish-Iranian cooperation: the blockade of Qatar and the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan and related developments in regional Kurdish geopolitics.
The Gulf countries’ blockade of Qatar that started in 2017 and lasted until last month was another factor that brought Turkey and Iran closer. Ankara did not regard the blockade as bickering between Qatar and its neighbors. Rather, it saw the crisis as an outgrowth of the Arab uprisings and as another manifestation of the contest for a new regional order. In this reading, given their close relations and similar positions on regional affairs, if Qatar were knocked out of the regional power game, Turkey’s regional role and presence would be further constrained along with that of its allies. Iran appeared to have had a similar reading of the rationale for, and possible repercussions of, the blockade. If it were successful, Turkey, Iran, and political Islamic actors would have suffered a major blow. As a result, Turkey and Iran unequivocally supported Qatar during this crisis.
Developments in broader Kurdish geopolitics have also served to bind Turkey and Iran in recent years. They have the largest and second-largest Kurdish populations in the Middle East respectively. Given their domestic Kurdish issues, both countries display extreme and excessive sensitivity to developments in Kurdish geopolitics. And, with the collapse of the country’s Kurdish peace process, which was launched in 2013 and ended in 2015, a fierce conflictual phase has replaced the brief period of lull on the subject in and outside Turkey. Even before this Ankara had reordered its priorities regarding the Syrian crisis, and now it went from pursuing a regime-change scenario in Damascus to containing and rolling back the political and territorial gains by Syria’s Kurds in the north of the country. This change of course