July 22, 2016 | Policy Brief

Where U.S. Sees Crisis in Turkey, Iran Sees Opportunity

Iran was the first government to fully back Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during Friday’s abortive coup attempt. That is no coincidence: Despite geopolitical disagreements, Tehran is now hoping to take advantage of Ankara’s recent signals that it is open to closer cooperation – particularly on the Islamic Republic’s signature regional objective: securing a regime victory in the Syrian civil war.

Between Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Tehran-Ankara relations were often strained but rarely acrimonious. Turkey regularly accused the Islamic Republic of fomenting strife within its borders, while Tehran saw Turkish secularism and ties to the West as a threat to its revolutionary ideology. Upon the rise of Turkey’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development party (AKP) in 2002, relations in the economic, political and security spheres steadily improved.

That all changed over the last five years, as each country has supported enemy sides in the Syrian war. Tehran has bolstered its regime ally with foreign fighters, money, training, and arms. Turkey has supplied funds and weapons and allowed relatively free movement across its Syrian frontier to rebel groups – including Sunni jihadists like Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, which the Shiite leadership in Tehran considers mortal enemies.

Since this spring, however, Turkish officials have expressed a desire to manage differences with Iran, as part of a broader effort to mend broken ties with regional powers including Russia and Israel. Then-Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu visited Iran in March, and the two sides announced their willingness to cooperate on regional issues and trade. The next month, Erdogan and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani agreed they would aim to bolster annual trade from $9.7 billion to $30 billion.

Ankara’s policy shift on Syria – until now the thorn in Iran-Turkish relations – sent further signs of encouragement to Tehran. On July 13, two days before the coup, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim publicly broached the possibility of normalizing relations with Damascus – a stunning U-turn in Ankara’s Syria policy. Media in Lebanon and Turkey have detailed weeks-long back-channel talks between Turkish and Syrian intelligence officials leading up to the prime minister’s announcement.

Meanwhile, the U.S. last week announced a joint military framework with Russia to combat jihadists in Syria – effectively a declaration of alignment with Moscow and Tehran on the Syria file. Erdogan has suggested Ankara is not opposed to the arrangement, telling Rouhani on Tuesday that Turkey is ready to “join hands with Iran and Russia … to return peace and stability to the region.”

From the Islamic Republic’s perspective, last week’s failed coup in Turkey is an opportunity to bring it in line on an issue that Tehran repeatedly touts as of “existential” importance to its regional ambitions. The fact that that country is a Western-allied NATO member – one roiling from an internal power struggle and geopolitical isolation – makes it all the more enticing in the Iranian view. While the U.S. and its allies watch the Turkey crisis with trepidation, the Islamic Republic sees opportunity.

Amir Toumaj is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AmirToumaj


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