Smoke rising from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain as Turkish forces continue their assault, October 15, 2019. (AFP)

By Track Persia

October 22, 2019

The position of the Islamic Republic of Iran towards the recent Turkish military operation in the Kurdish populated northeastern Syria is view by many observers as inconspicuous. The regime’s statements can be seen as more criticising the US policies on Syria than questioning the recent Turkish military offence.

Iran’s top officials, including President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, cautiously spoke out against Turkish President Erdogan’s plans, while urging restraint.

“The Adana Agreement between Turkey and Syria can be the better path to achieve security,” Zarif wrote in his Twitter account on 12 October, adding that “Iran can help bring together the Syrian Kurds, the Syrian government and Turkey so that the Syrian Army together with Turkey can guard the border.” This position from Zarif came after an earlier statement in which he expressed concern about the Turkish attacks on Syria.

On Thursday 10th October, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement in which it said that Tehran understood Ankara’s security concerns urging the latter to pull-out its forces from the Syrian soil because of “the importance of the humanitarian situation and dangers posed to civilians in the conflict zone.”

Kurdish nationalism

Iran’s position clearly reflects Iranian leaders’ concern over a possible backlash from Kurdish nationalism which could inflame the sentiments of 10 million Kurds living in Iran. Many Iranian Twitter users have voiced solidarity with the Kurds in northern Syria, accusing Turkey of “genocide”.

Most of the users have accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of committing genocide against Kurdish people in northern Syria. “There is only one explanation for bombing suffering and defenceless people by the fascist Erdogan [and that is] genocide and ethnic cleansing,” tweeted a user. A number of these users compared Erdogan to Adolf Hitler. While others criticised US President Donald Trump for his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria. They also widely criticised the United Nations for “only expressing concerns and taking no other measures.”

Perhaps to avoid any possible tension, Iran conducted military manoeuvres along its border with Turkey on the eve of the Turkish offensive.

It is worth noting that Iranian officials took similar positions toward the Kurds in neighbouring countries in the past when the Kurds were facing military threats such as those the Kurds in Iraq faced following the independence referendum in September 2017.

Khomeini’s position on Turkey

Following the success of his Islamic Revolution in 1979,  Iran’s late Supreme Leader and Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini encouraged the Turks to follow his step and revolt against their government and replaced it with  Islamic one. Khomeini’s position reflected his fears that Ankara could support Turkish nationalism among Iran’s own Azeri Turkish population.

The fact that Turkey long years of good relations with western countries, especially because being member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) caused a considerable source of tension between Tehran and Ankara. However, the decline of Turkish militant secularism reflected in Kemalist Era in the 1990s which coincided with the rise of Islamism in the Turkish society eased long-standing tensed relations between the Islamic Republic and Turkey.

Ahmadinejad’s warm relation with Ankara

Bilateral relations between Tehran and Ankara reached its warmest level during the first term of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who visited Turkey in 2008 to become the first Iranian leader to be hosted by a NATO member since the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. The deteriorated relations between Turkey and Israel after the Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla incident gave President Erdogan the incentive to build strong relations with Tehran. The good mutual relations between the two nations are reflected in Ankara’s support for Iran’s controversial 2009 presidential elections which returned Ahmadinejad to office. Equally, Tehran took a softer position towards Ankara and looked at the latter as true regional partner.

Vying for leverage in post-invasion Iraq

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq was a key factor in bringing Iran and Turkey closer, given both were concerned about their own security. Their fear led them to flagrantly interfere in post-invasion Iraq exploiting the long years of divisions among Iraq’s new leaders. At the same time, the two nations’  competition for influence in Iraq is reflected in supporting different players in Iraq. However, Tehran is seen as being more successful in gaining in Iraq than Ankara, in particular after the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, given the significant Iranian involvement in the military operations there and its support for its Shiite proxies to gain political power following 2018 elections. It is worth mentioning that in Iraq’s Kurdistan, Iran supports the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) which is led by Talabani’s family, while Turkey supports the Barzani family which leads the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). In return, these families and their parties return the favour of Tehran and Ankara by facilitating the latter’s efforts to target operative Turkish operative hiding in their territories.

Kurdish separatists

Both Iran and Turkey have Kurdish minorities which they fear that Kurdish separatists could influence to gain independence inspired by the post-2003 semi-independent government in Iraq.  These fears have led Ankara to send troops to attack the Kurdish separatists the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Iraq several times over the past years. Conversely, Tehran has also been alert by its by its own Kurdish separatists the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK). It has carried out a number of assassinations and bombed against hiding places of the group in Iraq, killing several of them.

Economic partnership

Iran is Turkey’s close economic partner, no wonder Ankara considers the sanctions imposed on Iran By the US  President Trump’s administration a major blow to its economic development. Turkey’s trade with Iran grew steadily, despite the sanctions. Therefore, Ankara’s interest in the Iranian nuclear negotiations arose out of the impacts of the sanctions on Turkish economy. Turkey has relied on its neighbour as a new market for increasing exports as well as a source of gas to meet its growing energy demands. Ankara aims at ending sanctions on Iran to the benefit its own economy.

Recently, Ankara has been accused by the US of taking part in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade US sanction against Iran. Last week, US federal prosecutors in New York charged a former executive of Turkey’s majority state-owned bank Halkbank of being guilty for helping running a scheme that allowed Iran to spend proceeds from sales of its oil and gas on international markets, in violation of US sanctions, using a complex web of front companies. According to the court, the scheme ran with the protection of high-ranking officials in Iran and Turkey, some of whom received tens of millions of dollars in bribes.

War in Syria

Despite the declining differences between Iran and Turkey, the regional ambitions of these nations still exist. Conversely, the war in Syria has widened their division, given Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime and Turk’s discontent with the Syrian dictatorship.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.