The Turkish-Iranian Alliance That Wasn't

How the Two Countries Are Competing After the Arab Spring

Turkish PM Erdogan (left) with Iranian President Ahmadinejad last September. (Courtesy Reuters)

One of the most controversial elements of Turkish foreign policy has been the attempt by the Justice and Development party (AKP) to cultivate closer ties to Iran. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rapprochement with Tehran has raised concerns in Western capitals that Ankara is drifting away from the West. Differences over Iran's nuclear program have heightened these fears. In defiance of the United States and other key NATO members, such as the United Kingdom and France, Turkey has downplayed the danger posed by Iran's nuclear policy and attempt to elude constraints imposed by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The most acute example was in June 2010, when, bucking its Western allies, Ankara voted against a new UN sanctions regime that would target Iran's military.

Worries about Ankara's eastward drift, however, exaggerate the degree of common interests between Turkey and Iran. Beneath an amicable veneer, relations between the two countries are marked by mistrust and unease. Turkey and Iran have been strategic rivals since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Persian Safavid dynasty blunted the Ottoman Empire's eastward expansion. The Arab Spring has given this historical rivalry new life. Since the summer of 2011, conflicts between the two countries have become more visible on Syria, missile defense, secularism, Palestine, Iraq, and the Kurdish issue. As pressures for greater democracy in the Middle East have intensified, Turkey and Iran have clashed more openly and each side has sought to expand its influence at the expense of the other.

Syria marks the most serious source of discord. Ankara's vociferous criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as its support for the Syrian opposition, has angered Iranian leaders. Syria is Iran's closest ally. Assad's downfall would deal a major blow to Iran's regional ambitions and leave Tehran ever more isolated. Consequently, in recent months, the ayatollahs in Iran have stepped up military support for Assad and, at the same time, accused Erdogan of openly

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