Turkey and Iran: a Friendship of Mistrust
Turkey and Iran have not perceived one another as an existential threat. But the mistrust between them have tragic consequences across the Middle East.
All over the world, children's stories start with some version of Once Upon a Time. There are only two countries, two cultures, where they begin with this phrase; Yeki Bood Yeki Nabood (Persian) and Bir Varmış Bir Yokmuş (Turkish), literally meaning: There Was One, There Wasn’t One. That seems to explain the mutual trust between these two neighbors.
Turkey and Iran share deep historic, cultural, ethnic, and economic ties. Despite this, they harbor deep mutual mistrust. Suspicions are evident, particularly acute, in their regional maneuvering: each views the other as seeking hegemony, if not to recapture lost glory, through hard power. This mistrust, coupled with miscalculations, had tragic consequences in Syria.
What changed in Syria after 2011 was neither the government’s nature nor Iran’s ties with it but Turkey’s strategic calculation. In September 2013, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif presented a plan for a political settlement in Syria to his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoğlu. Several months of shuttle diplomacy yielded no results.
There was agreement on every detail, except a clause in the final phase of the plan which called for UN-monitored elections. Turkey’s leaders wanted president Assad barred which the Iranians refused because that should not be a concern in an internationally monitored election, particularly if, as Turkey claimed, Assad has a dreadful record and a minority constituency. But Turkey’s Davutoğlu refused and the efforts came to naught as the civil war ravaged the country.
Turkish leadership calculated that military dynamics and time were in their favor. Abdullah Gül, the then president, later said, “our government did not pursue an agreement with Iran because it thought Assad would be toppled in a few months”. From Ankara’s perspective, Assad’s battlefield losses would remove the need to compromise with Iran. This was a huge miscalculation that resulted in thousands of civilian deaths.
Later both countries, along with Russia, put aside the most divisive, irreconcilable issue: president Assad’s ouster. They agreed to focus on what political system and power-sharing mechanism could work in a post-conflict Syria. But after two high-level rounds, Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield, to check the expanding Kurdish power disrupted the talks and exacerbated mistrust.
Iranians were livid that Turkey had not notified them of the operation despite the presence of a senior Iranian official in Ankara the day before. But Turkey feared that Iran would tip off the Kurdish YPG.
This cycle of mistrust and miscalculations continue to cost thousands of civilian lives. However, one silver lining is that both countries share a core interest in preserving Syria’s territorial integrity.
(A miniature from 1561 depicting Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I marching with an army in Nakhchivan, summer 1554, at the end of the Ottoman-Safavid Iran War. Photo by Topkapi Palace, Istanbul)