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Media misses simmering Turkish-Iranian tension

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Last week’s column dealt with the growing authoritarianism of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s pro-Islamist Freedom and Justice Party (AKP), despite his claim that Turkey is a beacon of secular democracy for the Arab Spring to emulate. 

This week’s column looks at the broader role that Turkey is seeking as an influencer in the Arab and Muslim worlds vis-a-vis Iran. 

While western media have given limited attention to the erosion of liberal democracy within Turkey, they have focused even less on the regional confrontation between Turkey and Iran. To be sure, journalists and pundits have discussed Turkey with respect to the Syrian crisis and Iran with respect to both its role in Syria and its illegal nuclear program. Yet what has not received the attention it deserves is the ongoing struggle between Turkey and Iran for regional dominance – and its far-reaching implications.

With dramatic growth in bilateral trade between the two countries since Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 – trade has increased from $1 billion in 2000 to $10 billion in 2010, and leaped to $15 billion in 2011 – relations on the surface seem to be very healthy. In fact, Turkey has been widely viewed by the West to be one of the leading weak links in the international economic sanctions against Tehran. 

When Turkish Development Minister Cevdet Yilmaz met late last month in Tehran with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s state-controlled Press TV reported that Ahmadinejad praised the “expanding and deepening” ties between the two countries and claimed to share “common enemies” who want to thwart these relations.

According to Reuters, in 2011 Turkey was Iran’s fifth-largest oil customer, buying around 200,000 barrels per day (amounting to 30 per cent of its total imports and more than seven per cent of Iran’s oil exports).

However, in May, under U.S. pressure to isolate Iran over its nuclear policy, Ankara cut its imports from Iran to 140,000 barrels per day, a 20 per cent reduction. Along with India, South Korea and four other countries purchasing Iranian crude, Turkey has just been granted a 180-day U.S. exemption from financial sanctions. The hope is that, in six months, Turkey will undertake further cuts while it finds replacement sources elsewhere – primarily Saudi Arabia, Libya and Venezuela.

Besides American pressure, what has seriously frayed relations between Turkey and Iran has been Tehran’s financial, military and strategic support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose brutal assault on his own people continues with no end in sight. In the meantime, Turkey has provided refuge to thousands of Syrian refugees and a safe haven to the Syrian opposition.

Not surprisingly, just this month, Iran’s Gen. Yahya Safavi, a former Revolutionary Guard commander and current military aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, accused Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar of serving American and Israeli interests. Safavi charged: “The Americans, Israelis, and some European and Persian Gulf nations, in particular Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have delegated to Turkey the task of achieving their goal to weaken or topple Bashar Assad’s government or make it surrender… Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are acting in the interests of the U.S. and the Zionists to weaken the resistance axis comprising Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.”

In recent analysis pieces for PBS Frontline, Alex Vatanka explained this growing tension: “The idea that Turkey is seeking regional dominance at the expense of Iran permeates almost all Iranian analysis about Istanbul’s policies in the Middle East, not just Syria. Tehran sees a direct Turkish challenge to its interests in places such as Iraq… Lately, the Iran-Turkey split has also begun to resemble the kind of sectarian competition that has long characterized Iranian-Saudi relations.”

“The rivalry reflects Iran’s innate fear of Turkey gaining geopolitical advantages due to Tehran’s isolation, which is a product of its nuclear standoff with the West and the limitations of its political appeal to Arab regimes and peoples.”

A third regional power (not addressed above) is Saudi Arabia, which has managed, largely through its financial clout, to thwart the regional ambitions of both Turkey and Iran. That, however, is a subject for another time.

Paul Michaels is director of research and communications for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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