By Aykan Erdemir
June 29, 2020
Turkey and Iran last week carried out joint military operations against Kurdish insurgents in northern Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdistan region. This security cooperation shows that despite the lethal clashes between Turkish troops and Iran’s various proxy forces in northwest Syria’s Idlib province last February, Ankara and Tehran’s differences concerning the Assad regime pose no impediment to continuing their long-running partnership elsewhere.
On June 14, the Turkish military launched an air and ground operation that employed jets, helicopters, drones, and artillery in various parts of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, targeting 150 suspected positions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The militant organization, which has been waging an insurgency against Turkish security forces that has claimed some 40,000 lives since 1984, has been designated as a terrorist entity by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.
The day Turkey started hitting PKK targets in Iraq, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Istanbul; it was only his second trip abroad since the Islamic Republic was struck with the coronavirus. Reportedly, Zarif’s goal was to work toward reopening the Turkish-Iranian border for travelers and to restart flights between the two countries after a COVID-19 hiatus. The collegial banter between both Islamist governments included a condemnation of U.S. sanctions on Iran and promises of a future trip to Tehran by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On June 16, the day Zarif left Turkey, Iran started shelling Haji Omaran district in the Iraqi province of Erbil near the Iran-Iraq border. The pro-Kurdish outlet Ava Today revealed that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been deploying heavy weapons to the area, and quoted local Kurdish sources to confirm two consecutive days of Iranian shelling.
Bitawan, a non-official news site close to the IRGC, reported that IRGC forces shelled positions of the PKK and its Iranian affiliate, the Kurdistan Free Life Party, after the Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers called “for joint cooperation between the two countries against terrorist groups.”
Islamic World News, another IRGC-affiliated news site, disclosed that the IRGC shelling came only hours after Turkish jets’ bombing of the area, but noted that “official sources have not confirmed the joint operation of the two countries.” Turkey’s ultranationalist Aydinlik daily corroborated reports of a joint Turkish-Iranian operation, reporting that the IRGC’s shelling targeted PKK militants escaping Turkish airstrikes.
This is not the first time that Ankara and Tehran have joined forces against Kurdish insurgents. Iran and Turkey also carried out a joint attack in March 2019, which the Turkish interior minister then celebrated as “a first in history.” Turkish-Iranian security cooperation, however, came under strain in February 2020, as the Idlib clashes soured bilateral relations.
The next month, relations deteriorated further as senior Turkish officials broke their silence to implicate two Iranian diplomats for instigating the November 2019 assassination of Iranian dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani in Istanbul. This temporary downturn in relations even prompted analysts to ask whether Turkey’s success against Hezbollah units in Idlib could rekindle Turkish-Israeli relations as they fight a common adversary.
The return of Turkey’s Islamist government to security cooperation with Tehran will likely pour cold water on U.S. hopes of using Turkey as a counterweight to Iran. As Ankara and Tehran appear to be increasing their coordination in different theaters of action from the Middle East to North Africa, this is yet another opportunity to remember that despite their sectarian differences and competition for regional hegemony, Islamist leaders in Iran and Turkey have time and again managed to find common ground.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies