At a time when tensions between Russia and Turkey have heightened, a new confrontation is quietly fermenting between the Turks and the Iranians. As Ankara pursues its strategy of exerting more influence along its southern periphery – which Geopolitical Futures predicted would happen – it is inevitable that Turkey will come into conflict with Tehran. Iran has already been trying to block Turkey in Syria and now, with Turkish forces approaching Mosul, has to also worry about Turkish incursions in Iraq.
Turkey moved to deploy some 200 troops and 20 tanks near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. While agreeing not to deploy further military personnel, Ankara rejected calls to withdraw the force already present there, which it argues is needed to help Kurdish peshmerga and Sunni militiamen fight the Islamic State. On the same day, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called on NATO to force the Turks to withdraw their forces. In response, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, “Baghdad is acting under the influence of other countries” – a subtle reference to Iran, which is Baghdad’s the strongest ally.
Late last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted furiously to Iranian media reports accusing his family of being involved in the oil trade with the Islamic State in Syria. Erdogan told reporters that he called his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, and told him, “You will pay a high price if the Iranian press continued to publish such reports.” Turkish and Iranian imperatives directly conflict with one another and are driving these tensions. A potential Iranian-Turkish conflict, until fairly recently, was kept under wraps. However, Turkey shooting down Russia’s warplane has brought underlying tensions to the surface.
Iran and Russia have been the main source of support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which the Turks want to topple. The Turkish decision to down the Russian fighter jet has the Iranians deeply worried that the Turks will become more active in Syria. Tehran also knows that Moscow is only interested in the Syrian regime in so far as it is a useful lever to force American concessions on the Ukraine issue. For Iran, however, the collapse of the Assad regime represents an intolerable security threat. Therefore, it has been escalating the war of words against Ankara, amplifying the claims that the Turkish government is in bed with IS.
Turkey obviously has to respond to these accusations but more importantly it needs to demonstrate that it is serious in its efforts to manage the chaos on its southern flank. Ankara is also well aware that for it to project power into the Arab world, it must punch through the significant Iranian presence in the two Arab nations with which it shares a border. While fellow Sunnis in Syria form a plurality, the Turks realize that they will have to deal with the Kurds and IS before they can make headway there. In the meantime, the Turks have also decided to use the IS threat to counter Iran’s influence in Iraq, which explains the move to deploy forces near the Mosul area.
Iran and the Iraqi central government cannot allow the Turks to intervene in what is demographically a Shia-majority country, especially when Tehran and Baghdad are already dealing with the Islamic State’s surge in the Sunni areas. Hence the uproar in Baghdad. The Turks, if they are to become the regional hegemon, cannot allow Iran to enjoy unchallenged influence in Iraq. But they are also aware of the constraints they face given that much of Iraq, from Baghdad through the south, is under Shia control. The northern part is ruled by Kurds, with whom the Turks have a sordid relationship. The Islamic State has been the main player in the Sunni areas ever since it took Mosul and declared the caliphate.
The Turkish strategy is to work with the Iraqi Kurdish faction led by Masoud Barzani, anti-Islamic State Sunni forces, ethnic Turkmens and others to create an enclave of influence in northwestern Iraq. This enclave can then be expanded incrementally to include other Sunni areas currently under IS control. If Turkey can secure an opening in Iraq, this could force the Iranians in Syria to negotiate a settlement designed to transition towards a future post-Assad arrangement. In this way, the Turks do not have to only rely on fighting their way through pro-Iranian forces in Syria as they expand southwards.
Iran is unlikely to allow Turkey to undermine its regional position – one that it has expended considerable resources in establishing – and, therefore, will work to block the Turks in both countries. However, the conflict between the two main Muslim but non-Arab powers of the region is yet another opportunity for the Islamic State to exploit and counter the gathering international coalition seeking its destruction.