March 3, 2015 | Policy Brief

Bursa-Bound: Ahmadinejad’s Trip to Turkey

March 3, 2015 | Policy Brief

Bursa-Bound: Ahmadinejad’s Trip to Turkey

On February 26, an Iran Air flight landed in Istanbul carrying a prominent passenger in seat 19F: former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Traveling to the Turkish Republic as a private citizen, Ahmadinejad was joined by a small entourage including two mid-level clerics, and a longtime friend and political confidant. Iran’s Foreign Ministry sought to emphasize the unofficial nature of Ahmadinejad’s visit, but the trip hits closer to home than Tehran may realize.

Ahmadinejad attended a memorial ceremony on Friday in the Western city of Bursa for Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s first Islamist Prime Minister (1996-1997) and the founder and leader of Turkey’s most popular Islamist movement, National Vision (Milli Görüş).

As Prime Minister, Erbakan’s first foreign trip was to the Islamic Republic, where he inked a 25-year deal for Iranian natural gas. Seen as a threat to Turkish secularism, Erbakan was forced from power in a “post-modern coup” in 1997. Amongst Erbakan’s transgressions was an event called “al-Quds night” in 1996, that included former Iranian Ambassador Mohammad-Reza Bagheri, who advocated an Islamic Republic model for Turkey in a speech that alarmed the secularist military and Constitutional Court. Later, as former prime minister, the last country Erbakan visited before his death was also Iran. Ahmadinejad’s invitation to this memorial only underscores the direction in which some of Erbakan’s followers might want Turkey to go.

Ahmadinejad was one of Erbakan’s biggest admirers, and he heaped praise on the deceased prime minister during last week’s memorial ceremony. During his address in Bursa, he gushed: “The late Erbakan was a great man … Imperialists first weaken the nations and then dominate them. But real politicians try to reinforce relationships between nations. The late Erbakan worked to strengthen nations. God bless him.”

Addressing reporters before the ceremony, Ahmadinejad touted the potential of Turkey and Iran to jointly challenge the global order: “I am certain that if Turkey and Iran are completely united together, the situation of the world will entirely change … when nations are together, Satan cannot do a thing. I want to give you glad tidings that the day of the death of Satan and the unity of nations is close.” Iran’s political lexicon, of course, often brands the United States as the “Great Satan.”

In Bursa, the Iranian ex-leader paid homage to the onetime home of Ayatollah Khomeini, where the theologian spent several months in exile before making his way to France, where he lived before returning to Tehran to lead the Islamic Revolution. During his visit, Ahmadinejad also met briefly with former President Abdullah Gül and discussed Turkish-Iranian relations.

Notwithstanding Iran and Turkey’s on-and-off competition and collaboration, the visit of a former populist Persian president to eulogize the father of political Islam in Turkey should not be ignored.  Despite what may well be a media ploy by an attention-starved former leader, Ahmadinejad’s trip underscores the enduring transnational ties between Islamists in the modern Middle East. 

Merve Tahiroglu is a Research Analyst focusing on Turkey at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Behnam Ben Taleblu is an Iran Research Analyst. 


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