Turkey-Iran rivalry in Iraq?
“The U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq is reordering political dynamics not only in Baghdad but also in the broader Middle East. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a number of actors are seeking to fill the outsized role that America has played in Iraq over the last eight years.” says Sean Kane in his report ‘The Coming Turkish-Iranian Competition in Iraq’. “The two rising powers in the region, Iran and Turkey, share borders with Iraq and are rapidly becoming the most influential external actors inside the country.”
In this analysis, we will focus on the rivalry between these two rising powers in Iraq. Although it seems that the relations between Turkey and Iran are getting better in recent times, Iraq has become litmus paper in order to understand the real face of this friendly relationship. After a bit the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, first signals of conflict of interests between these countries began to emerge.
Neo-Ottoman and Neo-Persian Competition?
“From the sixteenth century until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Iraqi history was largely determined by the ebb and flow of conflict between Ottoman Turks and the Safavid Persians. After Persia converted to Shiism, control of Shia holy sites in Najaf, Karbala and Samarra became symbolically significant to the Safavids, and the Ottomans tried to maintain Iraq as a Sunni buffer against the spread of the rival sect. In this centuries-long struggle, military conflict between the two empires focused on Mesopotamia rather than Asia Minor.” says Sean Kane. “The last century—the British mandate in Iraq, several decades of a strong independent Iraqi state, and the post-2003 American occupation—has been a hiatus from the historical pattern of Turkish and Iranian struggle for preeminence in Iraq. U.S. troops are scheduled to withdraw by December 2011, and the Iraqi state is not yet reconsolidated. Is competition among the heirs of the Ottoman and Persian empires likely to resume?”
I do not agree with Sean Kane in his categorization and approach because it is possible to skip political categorizations of 21st century when we get to the historical roots of this competition. In other words, secular/religious and cultural Islam/political Islam categorizations are more suitable for me in understanding this issue. If we pass over the Turkish model in the region and ethnical and sectarian divisions in Iraq, historical reasons will be more attractive to us. So, we should look at the different elements of this equation.
As Iraqi foreign minister Hoyshar Zebari says, this is the fact that today, Iran and Turkey are the biggest players and rivals inside Iraq. Soner Cagaptay, from Hurriyet Daily Newspaper, witnesses to this reality so: “Although both Turkey and Iran opposed the Iraq war at first, the fact that they have supported opposing camps in successive Iraqi elections has rekindled their competition. Today, Ankara and Tehran eye each other warily; neither wants the other to have more influence in Baghdad or over the Iraqi Kurds.”
Revelation of competition after the withdrawal of the U.S. forces
“The efforts of the Shi’ite to have a control over the fate of Iraq half-opened the way going towards the split. The Shi’ite Prime Minister Maliki’s show of force, his trying to push the Sunni out of the cabinet and the political course, his lashing out at Turkey, and Iran’s using itself for Syrian politics should be assessed as the first steps in Iraq going towards split.” says Cetiner Cetin, ORSAM Advisory Board Member.
As he mentioned, in the last period, Nouri al-Maliki revealed the coldness they have had with Turkey for a long time by indicating that they are concerned about Turkey’s interfering, rather than Iran’s, in the Iraqi internal affairs. “Right after the accusing and critical statements of Maliki, who draws his strength mainly from Iran, about Turkey, his accusing political attempts against the Sunni Vice-President Tariq al Hashimi, who is known for his close relations with Turkey, and against the Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak are actually the first signals showing that there will be attempts to block Turkey’s effectiveness following the U.S. withdrawal.” he said.
Here, we want to focus on the roots of this competition.
The roots of this competition
“Eighteenth-century English statesman Lord Palmerston famously stated that nations have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests.” says Sean Kane. “The starting point for forecasting the direction of Iranian-Turkish relations is therefore to examine each country’s interests in their old battleground of Mesopotamia.”
As he said, their political sway was made clear during Iraq’s extended 2010 cycle of government formation, when they were respectively instrumental in consolidating the two leading political groupings: Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya and Nouri al-Maliki’s National Alliance. While Turkey’s preference represents ‘secularism’; Iran’s preference represents ‘religious viewpoint’.
“Although Turkey and Iran have a lot of grounds on which to cooperate — the number of Iranians coming to Turkey last year was 2 million — the two countries struggling for leadership in the region have also opposing interests.” says Aydin Albayrak. “Iran is a major actor in Iraq, where it supports Shiite groups, whereas Turkey tends to support the secular movement while still maintaining good relations with Shiite elements.”
This means that although Iran and Turkey have good relations, their viewpoints are different from each other. “The relationship between Turkey and Iran has received heightened attention in the United States since the effort by Turkey and Brazil to negotiate a deal on the handling of Iran’s nuclear fuel in mid-2010. Although Ankara argues that Turkey’s new foreign policy platform of ‘zero problems’ with its neighbors and independent stance toward Western policy in the region poses no contradiction to its traditional Western alliances, some American policymakers and analysts view this approach as a realpolitik move by Turkey to reorient itself to the Muslim world, including Iran, based on Turkish economic and energy interests. Others believe that, despite this shift, Turkish and Iranian relations remain dominated by mutual mistrust and that the two countries view themselves as competitors for influence and preeminence in the region.” says Sean Kane. “More recently, a flurry of analyses has looked at Turkish and Iranian involvement in Iraq and whether the two countries consciously consider themselves rivals there.”
In addition to these, according to Joschka Fischer, while Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is trying to maintain good relations with Iran, its ambition to become the leading Sunni power means that Turkey must sooner or later contest Iran’s influence in Iraq, as well as in Syria and Palestine. And that means conflict.
On the other hand, there are some commentators who reject the claims about the rivalry between Turkey and Iran. “Marina Ottaway disagrees specifically with the notion of a Turkish-Iranian rivalry in Iraq, arguing that Turkey has no interest in antagonizing Iran by playing the Sunni card in Iraq and has shown through its votes at the United Nations that it values good relations with Iran.”
What are roles of Iran and Turkey in Iraq?
“Ankara is now Tehran’s most viable rival for preeminence in the region, but compared to Iran, it has repeatedly failed to take decisive action.” said Alakbar Raufoglu. “With less than two months before American troops withdraw from Iraq, the question of whether Turkey is prepared to take the necessary actions to play a leading role in the region remains unclear. If Turkey fails, it risks ceding its influence to Iran.”
Moreover, according to Cetiner Cetin, now, we can more clearly see the fact that Iran does not intend to leave Iraq to anyone after the withdrawal of the U.S.
“The timing of the crisis shows that after the withdrawal of the U.S., Iran is not intended to leave Iraq to anyone else.” says Assist. Prof. Serhat Erkmen. “Another dimension of the timing of crisis is the fact that it came right after Maliki’s accusing and critical statements on Turkey. As it is well known, some time ago, Maliki revealed the distance with Turkey they have had for a long time by stating that he has hesitations not because of the possibility that Iran could interfere in the Iraqi internal affairs but that Turkey could do it so, in a statement he made to one of the U.S. journals.”
As we can see, many commentators and writers fear Iranian influence in Iraq. For them, Turkey is a balanced element in Iraq and they prefer secular Turkey to religious Iran.
“Turkey has the advantages of being neither Arab nor Persian and of demonstrating a newfound distance from Western powers. Its strategic goal of becoming an energy conduit from the Middle East to Europe also gives it a compelling economic interest in a unified and prosperous Iraq fueled by increased hydrocarbon production.” says Sean Kane. “Iran, on the other hand, has the advantage of religious and cultural ties with the majority of Iraq’s population, but its involvement in the country is toxic for the minority Sunni population and watched warily by all Iraqi nationalists.”
Additionally, according to him, “Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to represent the starkest opposing tendencies in Iraq, but Turkish influence is the most significant regional counterweight to Iranian preeminence. That Turkey is not identified with either pole of the region’s toxic ethnic (Arab-Persian) and religious (Saudi Wahhabi–Iranian Rule of the Jurist) divides means that it has greater acceptance in Iraq and potential for positive input. From the Iraqi Shia point of view, Turkey, despite being Sunni Muslim, is not perceived as a source of terrorist attacks in Iraq or intolerance toward Shiism in the way that the Wahhabi creed is.”
Here, it is required to look at the commonalities and differences between Iranian and Turkish policies in the region. Sean Kane summarizes these topics briefly:
“First, the commonalities. Both emphasize maintaining the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq, particularly as it relates to their own restive Kurdish minorities, and avoiding a return to all-out sectarian conflict. Both also, somewhat reluctantly, accept the model of a federalized Iraq, but likely differ on the extent of decentralization this should entail.
It is on who should rule Baghdad and how that Ankara and Tehran have profound differences. As a secular democracy, Turkey publicly advocates for a genuine political process and broad, representative, and inclusive Iraqi governments in which no single group dominates. Although in practice tinged by its own Sunni orientation, particularly since the Islamist AKP came to office, Turkish political activity in Iraq does not approach Iran’s overtly sectarian approach. Tehran’s irreducible priority continues to be to ensure a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad that would turn a traditional security threat into a friendly state.
Tehran and Ankara also differ in their reactions to the U.S. policy goal of a sovereign, stable, self-reliant Iraq capable of positively influencing regional stability. Turkish officials assert that they cannot overemphasize the importance of a stable Iraq to Turkey, remarking that Turkey has paid a heavy price whenever Iraq is not stable, and that when Iraq is stable, the region is stable. The view from Tehran is radically different. Iraq has since ancient times been a rival and, more recently, a check to Iranian influence in the Middle East. This latter role encompasses the disastrous eight-year war Saddam Hussein launched in 1980, which included chemical weapons strikes against Iranian cities and the death and injury of as many as a million Iranians. Given this history, the prevalent view among Iran’s academic and political elite toward Baghdad is still one of mistrust and perceived threat. In fact, it is the veterans of that conflict that now rule Iran and they largely prefer a relatively weak, divided, and passive neighbor incapable of posing a future political or conventional military threat.
The third major area of diverging interests is trade. Both Turkey and Iran are vying to become Iraq’s leading commercial partner. Turkey sees Iraq as an integral part of its effort to become the economic bridge from the Middle East to Europe. Iran sees an opportunity to shift Iraqi trade eastward, away from its traditional orientation to the Arab world and Turkey, as part of its effort to become the connection between the Middle East and central Asia. Iran estimates its 2009 trade with Iraq at between $4 billion and $5 billion and has set a goal of increasing this to $20 billion within two years. Turkey estimates its own Iraqi trade at greater than $6 billion and expects it to grow to $20 billion within four years. In an ironic twist, the Kurdistan region has become the Turkish economic beachhead into Iraq, and Turkish companies now have leading roles in the construction, trade, and energy sectors in the north of the country. Iran, meanwhile, has the pride of place in southern and central Iraq, where it has become a leading investor in infrastructure, energy, and religious pilgrimage projects. Iranian scholar Mohsen Milani sees this as part of Iran seeking to realize a key foreign policy goal of establishing a ‘sphere of influence’ in Iraq’s southern provinces.
Despite the importance of trade with Iraq to both Iran and Turkey, the future of Iraq’s energy sector is even more significant and yet another area of difference. Turkey is not significant oil or gas producer but instead a rapidly growing hydrocarbon consumer. Moreover, a key strategic plank of its neo-Ottoman foreign policy is to become the main energy conduit from the Middle East to Europe. As a hydrocarbon consumer and transit point, Turkey stands to gain on two fronts from dramatically increased Iraqi hydrocarbon production. Consequentially, Turkish state-owned and private energy companies have directly invested in six gas and oil fields in southern and central Iraq and are major players in oil exploration efforts in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Iran is a hydrocarbon exporter, and, though it has explored gas transit deals with Iraq, its ability to tap its own vastly underexploited oil and gas reserves is precluded by international sanctions. Iraq’s ability to move forward with major international investment that Tehran cannot even contemplate for the forseeable future. Even partial Iraqi success in production increases could see Iraq overtaking Iranian production levels by 2015, and OPEC production quotas would therefore have to be recalculated.
Any possible continued U.S. military presence in Iraq is the final point of difference between the two countries. The Turkish parliament famously refused to provide permission for U.S. troops to use Turkey as an invasion route in 2003. Privately, however, they now express support for a small, continued U.S. presence in Iraq after 2011 on the basis of worries about Iranian dominance in Baghdad and the future of the trilateral security mechanism established between Turkey, Iraq, and the United States in 2008 for combating the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK). This mechanism, from the Turkish perspective, has proven useful in addressing a top national security concern and provided a diplomatic channel through which Turkey was able to conduct its outreach to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). For Iran, the national security priority is the departure of ‘encircling’ U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Tehran lobbied against the 2008 Security Agreement between Iraq and the United States that authorized the American military presence in the country until December 2011.”
When we compare the commonalities and differences in their policies, we can say that although it seems the direct opposite, their agenda is very different.
In that case, why many Western and American analysts emphasize the role of Turkey as a balanced element. If we can understand the expectations from Turkey in Iraq, it will be easy to show the whole picture.
What are the expectations from Turkey?
“Some suggest that the withdrawal of US troops has finally opened a new space for Iran to maneuver in the region that will strengthen Iranian domination. Some Turkish analysts suggest that the new Iraq is nothing but a new axis of an Iran-Damascus pact that enables Iran to have free geographical access from the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean.” says Emre Uslu, from Today’s Zaman Newspaper. “ Against this argument, some US experts, including political science professor Stephen Van Evera of MIT, think that ‘fears of Iranian domination of Iraq rest on the premise that Iraqi Shi’a identify so strongly as Shi’a and so little as Arabs or Iraqis that they will accept domination by Shi’a Iran. In fact, however, Iraqi Shi’a have a strong identity as Arabs and Iraqis. They have affinity for other Shi’a, but will not accept Iran or other non-Iraqis as overlords. Iranian dominance of Iraq is not in the cards’.”
In my opinion, this comment is very optimistic. It is a fact that the U.S. is afraid of Iranian influence and its receipt for this fear is Turkey’s balanced role.
As Vladimir van Wilgenburg mentions, a recent report by the United States Institute of Peace suggests that Washington should be less concerned about increased cooperation between Turkey and Iran because the two countries have different visions for the Middle East, suggesting that the “renewal of the historical Ottoman-Persian rivalry in Mesopotamia is likely as the dominant American presence fades.”
In addition to this reality, as we said before, it is very difficult to find any conflict between American and Turkish interests. So, many Western analysts suggest that Ankara’s engagement will be critical in limiting Iran and Syria’s (mostly negative) influence in Iraq.
“Walter Russell Mead, editor-at-large of the American Interest magazine, said Turkish success in Iraq would lead to a less pro-Iranian coalition in Baghdad, referring to Turkey’s rivalry over the country.
Mead connected any Turkish success in the Middle East as equal to Iran’s failure. He said ideologically, Turkey hopes to lead the Sunni Islam world while Iran aspires to lead the entire Islamic world. He also added that the same thing could be applied to Syria where Turkey’s success there could be spelled as Iran’s failure as well as loss of Iranian ties to Hamas.”
Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, also, says Iraq’s other Sunni-dominated Arab neighbors — such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait — should stop isolating Iraq’s Shiite government and embrace it instead. If they don’t, he says, then Iraq will only be pushed closer to Iran.
Moreover, “They (Turkey) are doing this throughout Iraq, in Kurdistan as well as in Baghdad and even Basra, which is not usually an area of Turkish influence,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. “The presence of a Turkish consulate in Basra is very much part of a strategy to dam in Iranian influence in Iraq through investments and trade.”
According to diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz for the Turkish daily Milliyet, Ankara shares Washington’s concerns about growing Iranian influence in Iraq. “The increase of the Iranian through Shia elements in Iraq, that is what Turkey will be worried about,” said Idiz. “And with Turkey there is a political competition going on for influence between Iran and Turkey.”
In addition to this, as Dorian Jones mentions, last month, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said Washington has proposed to take over the influential role of training Iraqi military personal, now that U.S. troops are pulling out.
“We have been contributing in training military elements in Iraq within the framework of NATO,” said Unal. “This issue has come up to the agenda, and of course, we will be considering it. According to Dorian Jones, such a move is seen as strengthening Turkey’s influence in greater Iraq and countering what observers say is expected growing Iranian influence with the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
When we look at the picture from this side, it, unfortunately, seems to us that Turkey’s regional role is shaping around the Western and American interests in addition to its own interests. This Turkey is distant from being an alternative to Shi’a-Sunni polarizations. It means that Turkey sooner or later contests Iran’s influence and interests in Iraq. It also refers to the Turkish role and model in the region:
“This is partly a replay of Ottoman era politics. The new Turkish Islamist government is eager to revive Turkey’s historical role as the leading power of the region. (Two hundred years ago the Ottoman Empire ruled everything from the Danube to the modern Iran/Iraq boundary and across North Africa as far as Algeria.) As Arab nationalism has failed and declined, Sunni Islam has replaced it as the leading political movement in much of that world. Arab nationalism was both secular and anti-Turkish; Arab nationalists regarded the Ottomans as an imperialist great power. But if Arabs look at the world through a religious lens, Istanbul used to be the seat of the Caliph.”
Is Iran the winner?
“When the United States’ last election surge withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi contest to produce a government, Iran stepped in to broker a settlement involving current PM Malaki (Malaki also serves as Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior but is not a dictator) and the jolly Sadrists. Malaki, a Shia, happily recalls his days in exile in Iraq during the Saddam reign while Sadr hid out as a religious “student” in Qom when he was on the U.S. military’s capture or kill list post-2003.” says Peter Van Buren. “Both men remain beholden to Iran and continue to shift Iraq closer and closer to Tehran’s policy positions. Iran has its own proconsul in Baghdad, well-known locally but not discussed much in the west. The guy moved into the job after a tour as head of the Iranian special ops Qods Force.”
In parallel to this comment, according to some analysts, the real winner of the war in Iraq is neither the Iraqis, nor Americans, but the Iranians.
But, Emre Uslu does not agree with this approach. “Does this means that Iran will have the freedom to do whatever it wants in Iraq?” he asks. “A simple answer to this question is no. There are at least two reasons why that is. First, despite the fact that US troops have withdrawn from Iraq, US influence on Iraq still remains strong through US advisors and Iraqi dependence on US armaments. Therefore, the US would exert its influence on Iraqi leaders to limit Iranian domination in Iraq. Second, Iraq’s dependence on US weapons systems prevents Iraqi Shi’a leaders from opening up wholeheartedly to Iran. Therefore, beyond the identity issues to be considered, there are more complex issues for Iraqi leaders to consider when leading their country.”
“In the Middle East, there is room for one shah or sultan, but not a shah and a sultan.” says Soner Cagaptay. “Ankara and Tehran appear locked, once again, in their centuries-old competition to become the region’s dominant power.”
Although “Turkey adopted an attitude in favor of a broad-based government” in Iraq, Turkey prefers to be a side of the Iraqiyyah Party. Actually, this preference play along with a new Turkish role in the Middle East. As Sean Kane emphasizes, Turkey’s blend of Islam, democracy, and soft power is a more attractive regional template than Iran’s formula of Islamic theocracy and hard power.
This Turkey’s rising influence in Iraq will please the U.S. and Western countries. So, they encourage Turkey in order to be effective in Iraq. “Any attempt by Ankara to challenge Iranian influence in Iraq will likely strain relations with Tehran.” said Dorian Jones. “Those relations are already under pressure over Ankara’s support for the opposition against Tehran’s key ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”
On the other hand, as Veysel Ayhan mentions, “despite the fact that some Iranian writers argue that Iran defends the territorial integrity and political unity of Iraq, when one observes Iran’s policy over Iraq, it can be seen that Tehran has a policy of making relations with all the Iraqi groups.”
“This way, it is seen that it takes steps in directing all the groups in line with the interests of Iran or threatening them when needed.” he says. “It is also necessary to indicate that the countries defending the territorial integrity of Iraq are not pursuing a determined policy on this matter. On the other hand, the main target of the Iran regime is known to establish an Iraq that is easy to control and direct.”
As Brian M Downing emphasizes, sectarian conflict in Iraq is again a concern as the Shi’ite government seeks the arrest of a Sunni vice president whom they tie to an assassination team. But neither Turkey’s these approaches nor Iran’s privileged policies can solve the problems of Iraq. The stability and security in the region are not independently of the developments that may take place in Iraq and policies/influences of neighbouring countries.
In this game, Turkey should stay out of being a pawn for Western interests and adopt unique policies. In this way, Turkey may bring into a friendly connection with both Iraq and Iran. This approach will be approved from all the groups and fragments in Iraq.
By Ismail Duman, WB
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