After holding a press conference with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has held a meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei. The meeting between a legally secular but de-facto Sunni Islamist President of Turkey and the legal and spiritual leader of the Shi’a Islamic Republic of Iran holds symbolic significance, but also wide ranging ramifications for the region.
During the cordial meeting, which President Rouhani also attended, the two countries agreed to take “every possible measure” to prevent Iraqi Kurds from implement the secession from Iraq which they recently voted for in a referendum boycotted by Arabs, Turkomen and other non-Kurds.
For Turkey and Iran, allowing Iraq’s territorial unity to be subsumed is not only considered a major security threat due to Kurdish separatist and terrorist movements in their countries, but the Kurdish referendum is furthermore considered a betrayal.
During the Iran-Iraq War in which Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq invaded post-Islamic Revolutionary Iran, Iraqi Kurds worked with Iran against Baghdad. Likewise, in spite of past tensions, in the 2000s, Turkey and Iraqi Kurds had good relations to the point that Turkey became a major investor in the region. It was Turkish engineers and contractors who designed and built an airport in the northern Iraqi/Kurdish city of Erbil in 2010.
This status quo was accepted throughout the region, but in unilaterally calling and holding a secessionist referendum, Masoud Barzani, the leader of Iraqi Kurds, has created enemies where he did not previously have nor need them. While the Iran based Kurdish terrorist group PJAK is affiliated with the Turkish PKK and not the Iraq based KDP, Iran like Turkey, does not want to witness a would-be political truce among rival Kurdish factions in order to create a cross-border insurgency that could ultimately threaten the territorial integrity of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
During their meeting, Khamenei warned of “long term repercussions” from the Iraqi Kurdish vote and further stated that Iran and Turkey, “should take every possible measure against the move and the Iraqi government, too, should make decisions and take serious action”.
Erdogan who earlier reiterated his views that Israel’s lone support of Iraqi Kurds will not be able to help them achieve their goals, also stated that Israel’s secret intelligence service, Mossad, had a hand in pushing for the controversial referendum.
Erdogan then stated,
“Turkey’s and Iran’s determination on the matter is evident. Turkey will only engage with the central government in Iraq and we certainly term this referendum as illegitimate”.
He then affirmed that both Turkey and Iran will take “more severe steps … in the upcoming period”. This is yet another indication that military action against northern Iraq’s Kurds is being considered by both Turkey and Iran. Furthermore, based on Iran and Turkey each conducting drills with Iraqi armed forces, it seems clear that Baghdad would support a contingency military option to preserve its territorial unity.
It would be false to say that the Kurdish secessionist vote in Iraq created a new and unexpected Ankara-Tehran partnership. In reality, 2017 has seen a remarkable improvement in relations between the two largest non-Arab powers of the region which started with the first round of the Astana Peace Talks, held in January of this year. Relations continued to improve as the Astana process continued with multiple meetings throughout 2017.
In the summer of 2017, it was announced that Turkey would build a border wall next to Iran in an attempt to cut off PJAK terrorists based in Iran from PKK terrorists in Turkey. The wall was met with the full support of Tehran.
Then, in August of 2017, Iran’s top ranking General, Mohammad Baqeri met with President Erdogan in Ankara.
Since then, it has become clear that two former regional adversaries have become partners both in respect of economic cooperation and in matters of regional peace and security. Turkey’s quiet withdrawal of support from opposition terrorists in Syria has also helped solidify further trust between countries who until this year were on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, as Iran, like Russia, has been and continues to be a strong ally of Syria.
While the Kurdish referendum and its strong Israeli backing hasn’t been the catalyst for Iran and Turkey’s warning relations, it has indeed driven home the need for both countries to cooperate together against a common Kurdidsh separatist adversary and now, increasingly, a common Israeli adversary.
While the Reagan administration, which supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, allowed Israel to sell arms to Iran in order to create a more even playing field in the war, Iran-Israel relationshave deteriorated rapidly since at least 1988. Israel now considers Iran to be more of an adversary than its traditional Arab opponents. It is of note however, that Iran continues to deny having any Israeli support during the war with Iraq.
Turkey’s relations with Israel have generally been good to the point of Turkey being Israel’s closet ally in the region, until recently. While there have been some antecedents to the current row between Israel and Turkey during the Erdogan era, Tel Aviv’s support for Kurdish secession in Iraq represents a watershed in the plummeting position of Israel among the leaders in Ankara.
As I wrote previously in The Duran,
“What is crucial to understand is that in holding the referendum against the wishes of all regional powers except for Israel and against the wishes of all international powers including both Russia and the United States, the Iraqi Kurdish regime took the calculated gamble that the lone support of Israel would be more valuable than the multitude of enemies who would be and have been galvanised by the vote.
But more interestingly, the Israeli leadership, in putting themselves out in favour of Kurdish secession for the first time (prior to this, Israeli leaders either spoke about such matters covertly or with statements laced in innuendo), Israel put its traditionally good relationship with Turkey on the line, just as the US has in Syria by supporting Kurdish militants there.
Except for the very public row over the illegal Israeli raid of a Turkish aid flotilla bringing aid to Gaza in 2010, Israel’s relationship with the Republic of Turkey has generally been positive. It could even be fair to say that Turkey has been Israel’s closet partner in the Middle East throughout this time and certainly this has been true since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 turned Iran from a partner into an adversary.Erdogan, both as President and before that, as Prime Minster of Turkey, has had an on again/off again relationship with Tel Aviv. Prior to the Kurdish vote, the spats Erdogan had with Israel have either been over the Israeli raid on the infamous Gaza Flotilla, something which is still viewed as an insult to Turkey by most parties in Ankara, or otherwise due to Erdogan’s occasional statements in favour of greater justice for Palestine.
In either case, both of these related spats are due to a matter of pride and geo-political stature, rather than an issue which directly effects Turkish security. Until now, Turkey’s relationship to the Palestine issue has been generally more remote than that of the Arab world and post-1979 Iran.
This may change however, but not because of anything happening in Palestine per se. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s support of Kurdish secessionism in Iraq, is from a Turkish perspective, the equivalent of a Turkish leader supporting the creation of a Hezbollah led Islamic Republic in southern Lebanon.
Furthermore, due to Israel’s longstanding relations with Iraqi Kurds, the analogy can be carried further. It would be as if Turkey supported Hezbollah with arms, funds and geo-political good will for decades before then calling for a new Hezbollah led state. One only needs to realise that Israel wants to essentially provoke a US led war on Iran due to Tehran’s relationship with Hezbollah, in order to know how seriously Turkey takes Israel’s stance on Iraqi Kurds, in this context.
Israel has grown accustomed to being at odds with the Arab world and Israel has exploited latent divisions in the Arab world so much so that Saudi Arabia will likely soon join Egypt and Jordan as two Arab countries that have open relations with Tel Aviv. Israel is also used to antagonising the Islamic Republic of Iran, but Israel is not used to having Turkey as an enemy, because such a thing has never occurred.
Unless Israel distances itself from Iraqi Kurds, both covertly and publicly, the world may be facing the spectre of the two most important non-Arab states in the Middle East, Turkey and Iran, both becoming adversaries to Israel.
In this sense, some individuals within the Israeli deep state may have seen Turkey’s growing relations with Iran as a threat. However, while it is not difficult to imagine some Israelis thinking like this, the logic behind such thinking is incredibly flawed to the point of being ignorant.
Like Russia, Turkey’s relationship with Iran is built on mutual economic benefits, geo-political realism, petro-politics and the need to intensify regional cooperation in preparation for the arrival of One Belt–One Road in the Middle East. Turkey is no more ideologically in-line with Iran than Russia is. Each country has a completely different state ideology and if anything, were Erdogan to fully bring Sunni Islamism to the front and centre of formerly secular Turkey, this will actually mean that Turkey will be even more ideologically different from Iran vis-a-vis a more religiously neutral Kemalist state.
Erdogan is ultimately not an ideologue, even though his language might often obscure such a fact. Erdogan is actually a pragmatist with a very loud and sometimes loose tongue. Erdogan is a man whose co-opting of Turkish civil society ought to read as a master text for leaders looking to consolidate their rule, gradually remove or placate opponents and remake civil institutions to work in one’s personal favour. Few could pull such a thing off and no Turkish leader since Ataturk has made such a profound mark on the Turkish state.
Likewise, Erdogan’s geo-politics is equally pragmatic. Erdogan has not distanced himself from NATO, the US and EU because of some desire to join ‘club Eurasia’. He has become part of ‘club Eurasia’ because he realised that this will be to Turkey’s economic benefit and that Russia and Iran are more easy to work with than the EU. The contest between an increasingly closed and economically retarded EU and China’s One Belt–One Road, which in any case will still give Turkey access to the EU through the backdoor, was not a matter of ideology, it was a matter of obvious self-interest”.
In this sense, while Iran and Turkey’s burgeoning good relations preceded the Kurdish crisis stemming from the referendum in northern Iraq, Turkey’s joining Iran as an opponent of Israel has been a direct result of the actions of Iraqi Kurds.