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Analysis | The Iran-Syria-Turkey Triangle


29 May 2012 17:04Comments

From trade to sectarian issues to regional influence, angles within angles.

Alex Vatanka is a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was a analyst at Jane's Intelligence.
[ analysis ] The Iranian-Turkish conflict over the future of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has the potential to set back relations between Ankara and Tehran by decades. Still, the conflict has not reached a tipping point and it is unlikely to do so as long as the Iranian-Turkish rivalry is limited only to tactical efforts by each side in shaping the power struggle in Syria. What will significantly change the Iran-Turkey-Syria equation is if Tehran concludes that Turkey is leading a U.S.-backed drive to bring about regime changes in the Middle East -- a "Libyan model" that can be repeated first in Syria and later in Iran.

Absent such a scenario, Iran is neither overly free to shape the outcome in Syria nor so reliant on its regime that it will risk all other regional interests to prop up Assad. Seen from Tehran, the potential loss of the Assad regime is a recoverable strategic setback if it does not have a spillover effect that directly challenges the Islamic Republic's grip on power in Tehran. Iran's relations with Syria were from the beginning a marriage of convenience, and plenty of suspicion existed in Damascus-Tehran relations before the Arab Spring. The post-Saddam Shia elite in Baghdad has already turned Iraq into Tehran's key Arab ally and regional priority.

What will also exacerbate Iranian-Turkish tensions is if Ankara deepens its challenge to Tehran's political influence in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. This scenario has already begun to unfold, and ties are being further frayed with the dangerous introduction of the sectarian factor.

Iranian-Turkish tensions did not begin with the Syrian crisis and the Arab Spring. The rivalry reflects Iran's innate fear of Turkey gaining geopolitical advantages due to Tehran's isolation, which is a product of its nuclear standoff with the West and the limitations of its political appeal to Arab regimes and peoples. Meanwhile, due to the same international and regional isolation, Tehran is clearly reluctant to simply write off nearly a decade's worth of investment in strengthening ties with Ankara.

In the short term, differences over Syria and events elsewhere in the Arab world means that Ankara is no longer trusted as an interlocutor in its nuclear negotiations with the West. For the United States and the West in general, the present state of Iranian-Turkish relations and the potential fall of the Assad regime are opportunities to further isolate Tehran in the hopes of convincing it to reassess its nuclear and regional policies -- possibly through additional rounds of economic sanctions to which Turkey would be likely to sign on. Even in such a scenario, however, the West's ability to count on Ankara in pressuring Tehran will depend on the West not moving the goal posts. Turkey does not want to see a nuclear-armed Iran, and can shift its approach toward Tehran as long as prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon is the objective.

How Tehran sees Assad

Iran's bewildered, hesitant reaction to the Syrian uprising in its early days revealed how Tehran looks at its long-time Arab partner. The Iranians at first clearly avoided any unconditional public line of support for Assad and kept their options open in the event that his regime swiftly fell apart, like Hosni Mubarak's did in Egypt. Iran judged that the Syrian crisis represented a challenge to its geopolitical position, but at the same recognized that it could open opportunities elsewhere in the Arab world. The Arab Spring had already opened the door for Iran to overhaul relations with Egypt, Yemen, and Libya; unreserved backing for the bloody Syrian crackdown would have been a major liability to any such efforts. The Iranian position was also shaped by the quick Turkish turnaround against Assad and Ankara's aim for the moral high ground in the region. Iran was disinclined to be the benefactor of an Assad regime run amok in a time of democratic hope in the Middle East.

Without ever openly indicating support for any Syrian opposition faction, Tehran was clearly contemplating a post-Assad era. Based on available open-source analysis produced in Iran, it can only be assumed that the Islamic Republic at this point judged that its leverage in Syria would not necessarily all disappear along with the regime in Damascus. This dynamic explained the early Iranian hesitancy and showed that the Iranian-Syrian partnership is devoid of a mechanism -- such as NATO's Article Five -- that either Tehran or Damascus can rely on.

In assessing the early Iranian hesitancy toward the Syrian crisis, the lack of depth in economic, religious, and cultural linkages between the two countries must also be considered. Iran's trade with Syria is around $700 million per year, about half the amount of Iranian trade with impoverished Afghanistan and a small fraction of its trade with China, approximately $30 billion per year. Despite the Western tendency to classify the Assad regime as Shia and therefore naturally aligned with Iran, there is not a strong sectarian connection here. While Iran has backed Shiites' demands in Bahrain, if almost exclusively rhetorically, there have been no notable examples of Iranian sectarian support for Assad's Alawite-led regime. This also reflects the fact that -- with Bahrain as a carefully delimited exception -- the Islamic Republic, as a Persian and Shia state, cannot afford to conduct its policies along sectarian lines, given the region's Sunni Arab majority.

During the course of the Syrian uprising, Iran's decision to move toward open, unconditional support for the Assad regime has come about due to a few key factors. First, it appears that the regime no longer risks being toppled by a popular uprising. In the meantime, the geopolitical stakes have increased. Iran fears Turkey has signed up for a U.S.-led campaign along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others to remove Assad, which would isolate Iran further. But it is not so much Assad's possible fate that disturbs Tehran as it is the precedent his downfall would set for further U.S.-led action in the region -- in a worst-case scenario, that "Libyan model" aimed at Iran itself.

Iran is also far less likely to be able to maintain its same degree of influence in Syria in a post-Assad scenario. Hamas and the broader Muslim Brotherhood, arguably Iran's preferred alternatives to Assad, have abandoned the Assad regime and are resisting Iranian pressures. Despite Assad's unreliability in the past, the current regime in Damascus is at the moment Iran's best hope to maintain its geopolitical clout in the Levant. This Iranian position, however, is not set in stone. Tehran's posture toward Assad can still change depending on realities on the ground in Syria and whether Iran can be allowed to be a stake-holder in Syria's future.

Iran-Turkey: lots to walk away from

The arrival of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) to power in 2002 transformed Iranian-Turkish relations. Ties were strengthened on political, economic, and security levels. The volume of trade between the countries shot up from about $1 billion in 2000 to a reported $16 billion in 2011. This increase occurred at a time when Iran faced an incremental economic squeeze by the West and Turkey became an increasingly alternative business partner. Security cooperation meant joint efforts against militant Kurds and common opposition to the establishment of an independent Kurdistan after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

To be sure, the Islamic Republic also publicly welcomed the Islamist attributes of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP government. But it is important to recognize that mutual tangible benefits were the key drivers that pushed relations forward. Despite rhetoric on both sides about pan-Islamist solidarity, ideology was never the glue that cemented Turkish-Iranian ties.

In fact, early on in this Iranian-Turkish renaissance there were expressions of doubt from Iran about Turkey's intentions. Some questioned whether the AKP's Islamist posture was a front for what Jomhuri Eslami called a U.S. Trojan horse designed to introduce "American Islam" to the region. Iranian criticism of Turkey has not been limited to the hardliners: many analysts associated with the reformists warned about tempering expectations for what Turkey could do for Iran.

Rivals before, during, and after the Arab Spring

In addition to the ongoing geopolitical and economic rivalry between Iran and the AKP's Sunni Islamist model (particularly in post-Saddam Iraq), Tehran viewed Erdogan's government as a rival to Iran's Shia-based Velaayat-e Faghih (rule of the supreme jurisprudent) and a threat to Tehran's regional aspirations. Most notably, in May 2010, at the height of Iranian-Turkish trust and the signing of the Iran-Brazil-Turkey trilateral deal, Tehran reacted very jealously when Turkey gained much popular Arab support for its anti-Israeli posture following the Gaza flotilla raid.

The Arab Spring has raised the stakes for Iran in its regional rivalry with Turkey -- especially in Syria, but also in Egypt and elsewhere. Tehran saw Turkey as a de facto collaborator with the West in toppling Muammar Qaddafi. Erdogan's comments promoting secular republicanism in Egypt were judged as a direct threat to Iran's message to the Arabs. Iranian propaganda now places Turkey in the same league as Saudi Arabia and Qatar as the three key (Sunni) instigators that push a U.S.-backed anti-Iranian agenda in the region. Meanwhile, the decision reached by Turkey last September to host a NATO anti-missile radar system is viewed in Iran as a major betrayal.

While Iranian leaders perceive a fair amount to be angry about, they have kept the door open to Turkey. A good example of this was Erdogan's shuttle diplomacy in March that paved the way for the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Istanbul. At the time, pushing ahead with nuclear talks with the P5+1 surpassed any desire to chide Ankara for its regional policies. Still, it is highly doubtful that Iran will agree to Ankara playing any important role in resolving the nuclear issue unless it becomes a prerequisite by the West, which is unlikely. This considerable trust deficit in Ankara-Tehran ties will likely linger in the short to medium term.

Implications for the West

Whether Turkey can play a mediating role in Iran's nuclear case is up to Tehran and whether it wants continued Turkish involvement. All the indications at the moment show deep Iranian reluctance to turn to Ankara.

This presents an opportunity for the West if the talks in Baghdad fail and even more severe sanctions are imposed. In such a scenario, Turkey can move from acting as an independent arbiter -- as in May 2010 -- to more convincingly aligning itself with the West against Iran. Such a posture by Ankarawould not in itself further jeopardize Iranian-Turkish relations. Events since early 2011 have already convinced the Iranians that Turkey is firmly anchored in the West and that Turkish goodwill is conditional and finite.

Such a change in posture by Turkey could nonetheless have a significant impact on how Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his faction in Tehran read the viability of international sanctions against Iran. It could convince them to change course on the nuclear issue as their political-economic isolation grows more acute.

Indeed, signs that Tehran is preparing to change course are arguably already evident. The bigger unknown is Turkey's foreign policy while the Iranian nuclear dispute continues and the Syrian crisis unfolds. Ankara's regional goals appear far more ambitious than simply nullifying the Iranian nuclear threat or heading off Tehran's counterchallenge in Syria. An all-out attempt to make Ankara the central player in the new broader Middle East will likely mean a hardening of Turkish opposition to Israel's policies and nuclear arsenal. Such a strategy will at minimum complicate American counterproliferation efforts and broader regional objectives, including the resolution of the Iranian nuclear question.

related reading | Does Tehran Hold the Key to Syria? | Uneasy Reliance: Iran Frets about Turkey | Iran Primer: Iran and Syria | Iran Primer: Iran and Turkey

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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