17.12.2023 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Turkey-Iran: new relations are possible

While Turkey and Iran seem to be pursuing much of the same goals and objectives with regard to the Gaza war, they are actually pursuing them in different ways. The Gaza war has shaken the fragile regional order in the Middle East, where regional powers Turkey and Iran have historically always competed for their influence over the rest of the states. Relations between Ankara and Tehran have a complicated history of ups and downs, and the two states have often been on opposite sides of the barricades in regional conflicts such as in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Caucasus. But the war in Gaza has changed their position somewhat and analysing this provides an important context for examining the positions of these two regional powers.

While the war may, depending on its duration, bring Turkey and Iran closer together, given their shared negative stance towards Israel, it may still not be enough to foster co-operation between them due to their different regional views. One example of this is the fact that Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi was expected to attend the summit in Ankara, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had previously announced to reporters, but he did not show up. Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency reported that Raisi’s visit to Turkey “has been postponed” but gave no reason or any other details. The visit was announced amid Erdoğan’s call for Iran to join Turkey in formulating a joint response to Israel’s war on Israel and Hamas.

The disagreement over Raisi’s visit seems to indicate that despite their common position on the Gaza war, there are still differences between Turkey and Iran on a number of issues. Understandably, Turkey’s condemnation of Israel’s war on Gaza does not suit Tehran, which expects Ankara to go beyond words and sever its commercial and political ties with Tel Aviv. This dramatic new wave of war comes after a long period of regional de-escalation and reconciliation efforts. In such a favourable environment, Turkey and Israel were moving towards normalising their relations.

With regard to the Gaza war, Turkey took a diplomatic stance and offered to play the role of mediator. Since Turkey had close relations with Hamas and was in the process of reconciliation with Israel, it considered itself an ideal mediator. It also proposed a system of guarantees and suggested that it could be one of the guarantors. This was a clear reflection of the policy of Ankara and personally of President Recep Erdoğan to separate political and commercial issues.

Many analysts see Raisi’s postponed visit as a reaction aimed at pushing Ankara to take tougher measures. However, such expectations of Iran do not provide a solution and are realistic at this stage. As Turkey’s Hurriyet wrote: “No country in the region has any desire to participate in this war militarily, so why should Turkey?” To some extent, the newspaper is right, because even Iran has officially stated that it has no desire to directly engage in any regional conflicts, including Gaza. And this is a worthy Iranian response to all the howling in the Western press that it is Tehran that is behind all the conflicts in the region. And this at a time when Israel and the United States were jointly practising attacking Iran in military manoeuvres, and they did not even hide it.

While their positions on Israel’s aggressive policies towards the Palestinians and Hamas may coincide, Turkey and Iran have different relations with Palestinian groups and different policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both Ankara and Tehran, and there is no secret about it, have ties to Hamas, albeit of different nature. Unlike its Western allies, Turkey does not consider Hamas a terrorist organisation. While Erdogan called Israel a “terrorist state,” he described Hamas as a “liberation group” that is part of the Palestinian resistance to Tel Aviv’s aggressive policies. On the other hand, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei did not even mention Hamas’ name in his latest speech, but he reiterated Iran’s moral support for the Palestinians and their just cause to establish their own state.

Although Iran supported Hamas politically and militarily, they had serious differences during the Syrian civil war. Hamas supported Turkey in Syria and opposed the Assad regime, which is supported by Iran. While Tehran has tried to keep channels of dialogue with Hamas open to be seen as supportive of the Palestinian cause, the relationship was also put to the test in 2015 when Hamas expressed its support for the Arab coalition’s military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen. Since then, Iran has alternately reduced and suspended its aid to Gaza. But even as co-operation has been scaled back, the Iranian leadership has tried to maintain a degree of closeness with Hamas.

Turkey’s support has been more political in nature, as it has tried to maintain ties with both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Ankara is part of a group formed at the latest summit of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Riyadh, which includes foreign ministers and other representatives from Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and the Palestinian Authority, as well as the OIC secretary general. But Iran, despite being a member of the Organisation of Islamic Congress and a country that has consistently stressed Muslim unity, is not part of the group calling for an immediate end to the war in Gaza.

Although Tehran’s policy towards the Gaza war stems, as some commentators have noted, from its desire for regional hegemony and its consistent desire to help every regional party opposed to Israel, the conflict still gives Iran more advantage than any other actor, including Turkey. The war has halted the normalisation of Saudi-Israeli relations, exacerbated Turkish-Israeli relations after their recent rapprochement, and raised anti-Israeli sentiment in the Muslim world to a new level. While the prolongation and even extension of the war into Syria and beyond poses worrying risks for Ankara.

While Turkey and Iran seem to share the same viewpoint on the Gaza war, they are actually taking different paths. Iranian Foreign Minister Hosein Amir Abdollahian visits Turkey during the Gaza war and has held regular phone conversations with his Turkish counterpart on the issue. Despite such commitments, the two states’ historic rivalry for strategic dominance in regions such as Iraq and Syria and the Iranian president’s postponed visit to Turkey indicate that any combined Turkish-Iranian co-operation on Gaza is likely to be limited and will likely not last.

And it is quite natural that nowadays every country strives, first of all, to respect its own interests without infringing on the interests of others. In this respect, the multipolar world sharply differs from the unipolar one, in which many states were forced to observe and obey the interests of the USA alone, to serve for the benefit of the American hegemon only. A new world, new laws and orders are coming, and more and more countries of the world both welcome it and strive to create just such a multipolar world where all nations would receive their interests. And the new relations between once serious adversaries Iran and Turkey are vivid evidence of this.


Victor MIKHIN, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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