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Turkey vs. Iran: The Battle for Influence

By Alakbar Raufoglu

Even before the Arab Spring, the Turkish government has been carefully positioning itself to emerge as a new regional hegemon, hoping to play an even more critical role in Iraq and the larger Middle East. The U.S. plans to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by the years end while nations of the Arab Spring—Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya—face the challenge of nascent governments, post-revolution reforms, and violence including in Syria along Turkey’s own borders. A distinct power vacuum is growing, and Iran has already leapt at opportunities to exploit it. 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. 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.

The effectiveness of Turkey’s role in Iraq will depend foremost on its relations with different Iraqi political players as well as its increasing business presence. The countries’ fates are increasingly intertwined, with tens of thousands of Turkish nationals holding residence permits in northern Iraq and most commercial products being exports from Turkey. With $10 billion in bilateral trade, Turkey is a vital investor in Iraq’s fragile economy and infrastructure. 

Dialogue between top Turkish and Iraqi officials have taken place in recent weeks as Turkey attempts to establish a strong foundation with a vital player on the Iraqi political scene—the Iraqi Kurds. But politicians in Ankara, such as former Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin, worry about what will happen if U.S. withdrawal triggers further violence by Kurdish rebel groups. Such worries have heightened political anxiety in Turkey.

In October, after Kurdish militants killed at least 24 Turkish soldiers, Ankara launched one of its largest military operations in the past decade against the PKK, a Kurdish militant group with bases in Northern Iraq. Depending on the intensity of possible Kurdish revolts, Turkey may decide to extend its aggressive response across its border into Iraq, which would gravely wound improving relations between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. Should military action intensify, neither Prime Minister Erdogan's regional image nor Turkey's dominance over the Iraqi Kurdish economy prevent violence from erupting. 

Although any significant change in the way things are done in Iraqi Kurdistan is unlikely, Ankara should follow developments closely and welcome open dialogue with all political actors in the Kurdish region. Last but not the least, there should be heightened border protection as a preventative measure against potential threats.

With the changes of the Arab Spring and the Libyan implosion, Turkish leaders are also worried about transferring security responsibility from Western forces to local hands during a period of upheaval in the Middle East. Given the tense history with Kurdish groups, Iraq’s fragility, and the emergence of terrorist groups in the wake of U.S. action and withdrawal, Turkish leaders fear that violence could seep inside their borders.

The U.S. withdrawal posits Iran and Turkey in a face off, because it offers Iran a golden opportunity to increase support for the Syrian Assad regime and its brutal crackdown on protestors. More importantly, it gives Iran the chance to expand its influence unabated into neighboring Shia areas that extend from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Many Western analysts suggest that Ankara’s engagement will be critical in limiting Iran and Syria’s (mostly negative) influence in Iraq.

“These developments will have direct and indirect impact on Turkey’s strategic interests.  In one form or another Tehran and Ankara will be heading toward a collision course,” said Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University.

Iran has described the Arab uprisings as extension of its 1979 Islamic revolution, which it has failed to export to any country since then. Like Iran, Erdogan’s Turkey aspires to export its “Islamic model” to the Arab Spring nations, capitalizing on the prominence of Islamic forces that could dominate the post-revolution governments and national political scene. Turkey hopes that these Islamic groups look favorably upon the perceived Turkish model—an economically prosperous democracy which has successfully incorporated Islamic values.

After waiting quite some time, Turkey placed its support behind the opposition rebels in Syria. Some analysts, such as Lenore Martin, an associate at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, as well as Efe Sevin, a Turkish blogger in Washington DC, believe that the Assad regime is likely to be less than cooperative with Ankara when it comes to controlling the Kurdish rebels there.

In other words, if Ankara fails to shape the region's future, Turkey risks compromising its credibility as a dependable ally while simultaneously heightening its own security concerns—especially because of terrorist safe havens in Iraq and Syria. Therefore, Ankara needs to focus on basic security, as regional transformations take place amidst a significant increase in Kurdish rebel group violence in Turkey.

Turkish-Israeli relations offer another case study in Ankara’s destructive inertia. While Israel was wrong for not apologizing for the death of nine Turks in the Marmara incident, Ankara has not reacted with responsible tact or action. As Ben-Meir says, “I am not sure that it was wise for Turkey to allow the relations with Israel to deteriorate to the current sad level.”

Many Israelis believe Turkey has chosen to intensify its confrontational approach with Israel in order to appeal to the Arab streets, confusing Arab governments with the Arab masses. But current and future Arab governments are and will be weary of outside control from actors like Turkey. The last thing they want is a return to what they term the “Ottoman-style Turkish dominance,” or to succumb to Iran's ambition to become a regional hegemony with nuclear power.

To enhance regional stability Turkey must reexamine its bilateral relations with several neighboring countries and find a way to mend its relations with Israel. Israel, of course, must also do its share.

Claude Salhani, Senior Fellow at the Institute of World Affairs in Washington DC, believes Turkey will not stop short of imposing itself as a guardian of soft democracy in the region, “even by force if need be.”

Back in Ankara, some pro-government politicians are sure that Turkey still has a lot to contribute to the Middle East’s growing transformations, as well as its security environment. As Fuat Keyman, Director of Istanbul Policy Center and Professor of International Relations at the Istanbul-based Sabanci University, argues, the Turkish model—with its secular constitutional structure, economic dynamism, and vibrant entrepreneurial middle class—is a point of inspiration for countries going through dramatic changes.

In the meantime, Turkey must prepare for both U.S. withdrawal and the Arab Winter, asserting itself in a power vacuum amidst mercurial players. Ankara must face its rivals and redefine its relationship within the region, influencing its neighbors subtly and supporting stable, progressive changes after its own model.

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Alakbar Raufoglu is a Washington D.C.-based journalist  covering Turkey and the surrounding region. His articles have appeared the Southeast European Times and in several n other newspapers and magazines.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ozgur Mulazimoglu]

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