Turkey’s disagreements and tensions with Greece are frequently on the public agenda. There are a number of disputes from Cyprus to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean, with the possibility that the military balance between the two countries may shift in favor of Greece due to the supportive attitude of the USA. But perhaps the real risks lie elsewhere, to our East. The ongoing conflicts with Iran, one of our Astana partners, are not being discussed in public on a high pitch, apparently as a result of a deliberate decision of the government.
I had previously discussed the differences of opinion with Tehran mostly within the context of the situation in Syria. We know Iran’s strong objections to Turkey’s efforts to expand the areas it controls on counter-terrorism grounds. This shows that it is not yet possible for the two great regional powers to come together on a common understanding of the territorial integrity of Syria.
What we don’t talk about much is the ongoing power struggle in Iraq between the two countries. Contrary to the situation in Syria, tensions continue both in the country and in the Northern Iraq, where Ankara seems more in tune with the United States’ view. Iran’s missile attacks on the areas under the control of Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government) continue intermittently. One of Turkey’s most important allies in the region, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (IKYB or KRG in English) feels the military pressure of Iran.
The demonstrations that have ravaged Iran since Mahsa Amini’s death are perceived by the regime as threats that create security risks and must be suppressed, rather than spontaneous social demands. Aside from the mass unrest that has the potential to bring about regime change, it seems that the most disturbing developments are in the Kurdish regions and Iranian Azerbaijan in the northwest. Against the unrest in its Kurdish provinces that it sees as a threat to its own territorial integrity, the Iranian administration continues its attacks on the peshmerga-controlled areas in order to fight separatist groups. It is not possible for this escalating tension against the KRG not to disturb Turkey and affect our political and economic interests in the region. Yet, Ankara’s reaction is subdued or at least not much publicized, as the issue is more about Iraq’s sovereign rights.
However, Iran’s efforts to reflect the tension to the Southern Caucasus caused Turkey to respond with an open show of strength. The fact that the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has turned in favor of Baku since September 2020 seems to have upset Iran. Russia, which was the sole decision maker in the region for a long time, was forced to a lower profile policy—on account of its distraction in Ukraine, paving the way for the Turkey-Azerbaijan partnership to impose its own conditions. First, significant progress has been made in the Karabakh issue. Then, the Zangezur corridor and the east-west corridor (Connecting Azerbaijan to Turkey via Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic) were completed. In fact, this means the realization of the dream that has been in mind of the Ottoman Empire, e.g., the creation of the corridor stretching from the Caucasus to Asia.
If we put the issue on a more current perspective, an alternative logistics route from China to the West gains even more importance due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. A new Eurasian link that bypasses both Russia and Iran, also known as the Middle Corridor, is very valuable.
As Turkey and Azerbaijan join hands not only in the field of energy, but also in creating a new logistics corridor, Iran’s reaction becomes more understandable. While the mullahs are dealing with the most sweeping popular movement since the 1979 revolution, they must also feel as if they are surrounded by this new situation in their north.
Despite all the Islamic sensitivities within the country for years, the Iranians took a stance in favor of Armenia in the political conflict in the Caucasus. For a country that is said to have an Azeri population of 15-20 million, this created a serious vulnerability. As a matter of fact, while the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict continued, Tehran’s pro-Erivan attitude led to internal turmoil.
Now, while the conditions are getting better in favor of Azerbaijan, Iran is taking action to fill the gap in this game left Russia. It tried to intimidate Baku with the military exercises carried out in the north of the country weeks ago. Verbal bickering between the two countries continues.
What makes the current situation more volatile is that, contrary to the tension in the KRG, Turkey became a party to the dispute by displaying her flag this time, as it conducted a joint military exercise with Azerbaijan, just north of the Aras River, called “The Brother’s Fist”. The war games, which is said to have started weeks ago, was only announced recently. The deployment of Turkish F-16s to Baku together with Defense Minister Hulusi Akar shows that Ankara will not hesitate to resort to force on this issue.
Despite many conflicts of interest in its relations with Russia, Turkey aims to keep a careful language and maintain an open line of communication between Putin-Erdogan. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that Turkey’s stance is increasingly assertive when it comes to contradictions with Iran. Of course, Tehran’s rude style towards Azerbaijan is also effective in this.
Azerbaijan, which has gradually entered into a deeper and multifaceted interdependence with Turkey, has special relations with Israel and the West. So far, it has succeeded in conveying this relationship to Russia without a break-up. Therefore, it is not possible for the policy of intimidating Azerbaijan to work very well for Iran.
Policy makers in Ankara and Baku are aware that conditions have changed permanently in their favor. Feeling that the wind is blowing their sails, Turkey and Azerbaijan no longer avoid shows of determination. It is felt that Armenia under Pashinyan is inclined to sue for peace, which tilts the odds in favor of Turkey-Azerbaijan alliance vs Iran.
Next, let’s try to understand the reasons for Iran’s hawkish policies in these circumstances.
Again, we can guess that the changing power balances we mentioned above, together with the domestic unrest, are perceived as an existential problem for Iran. Exclusion from the Caucasus power games and trade must be perceived as a deadly to blow Iran, which struggles for influence in a geography extending from the Levant to Iraq and then to Yemen.
Azerbaijan, which finally liberated its occupied lands and connected to the West via Turkey, situated in the middle of energy and logistics lines, seems to have a bright future in the coming years. The economy of the region will continue to recover rapidly, while the Gordian knot, which Russia has tied over Armenia, is untied. While the importance of alternative suppliers to Russian gas has increased after the Ukraine war, Azerbaijan will have the opportunity to increase the amount of gas it already sells to Europe, perhaps to play a transit role for Turkmen gas. Thus, getting richer and increasing its power due to the military relations it has established with Turkey and Israel, Azerbaijan will create a natural center of attraction for millions of Azeris in its south.
As the protests reveal, the administration in Iran is losing support in the Azeri and Kurdish regions as well as in the rest of the country. In these conditions, the presence of a bright Azeri nation that could be a center of attraction just across the borders is a conundrum for Tehran.
Unable to find an easy way out of this impasse, the administration uses violence to intimidate the demonstrators inside and turns to shows of force abroad. The extent to which the measures inside will work, and whether the opposition will be cowed is another matter of discussion. Externally, things may become even more dangerous until Iran concedes that it cannot resolve the changing balances in the Caucasus by showcasing its strength.
For us, it seems that the time has come to focus on our multifaceted conflicts of interest with Iran as well as the conflicts in the West. It is not possible to immediately eliminate the reasons for competition, but it is a priority to prevent the chaos in Iran from escalating into a regional conflict.
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