Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan’s latest pivot

Following the coup attempt and Tehran’s rapid solidarity, Turkey and Iran grew closer still. But now, with Trump in the Oval Office, the picture is different

Erdogan’s latest pivot
Erdogan’s latest pivot

Iran was one of the first countries to show solidarity for Turkey as it moved to overcome the coup attempt on the part of a few Anatolian army units. “We support the popularly elected government and would like to see Turkey remain a safe and stable country,” the Iranian Interior Ministry announced within hours after news of the coup attempt broke.

The following day President Hassan Rouhani rang up his Turkish counterpart to reiterate the message. He stated that Tehran stands by Ankara and the two should work to expand the scope of their bilateral relationship.

Then before a month was out, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif paid a solidarity visit to Iran’s northwestern neighbour with which it shares not a small border. He was received with great warmth for which the Iranian Islamic Republic immediately expressed its gratitude and declared its condemnation, in principle, on all attacks against democracy. The rapid Iranian responses conveyed an implicit jab at other countries that had been slow to demonstrate their support, a few Gulf countries among them.

The sudden gush of good-neighbourly emotions inspired great hopes for increasing the volume of trade to levels commensurate with these two countries’ stature as regional powers, so as to promote the prosperity of their peoples in a climate free of factionalism and sectarianism. Ambitions towards this end in Turkey were emboldened by what it perceived as unfavourable trends in the international climate. The US was in the final laps of the presidential campaign and Ankara was certain that the Democrats would remain in power in Washington under Hillary Clinton who would probably sustain Barack Obama’s foreign policy outlooks. It was therefore the right time to step up normalisation with Russia after a several months long contretemps, a decision that pleased the Iranians. Soon afterwards Moscow gave the green light for Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” operation in Syria, which encountered no significant objections on the part of the Mullahs in Iran. All thumbs were up for Ankara on that front.

Then came the shock of Hillary’s defeat and, in defiance of all polls and predictions, the victory of billionaire business magnate Donald Trump with his “America first” isolationist outlook and the promise he showed of being indifferent to whether the foreign governments he dealt might be classed as dictatorships. Nothing was more guaranteed to appeal to Turkish strongman Erdogan, especially after the frost generated by the criticisms levelled by Trump’s Democratic predecessor. It was a good thing that Erdogan had done that U-turn on his stance towards Israel and had now reconciled with that beloved friend of the Republican president. That Trump had simultaneously begun to bare his teeth in the direction of Tehran meant, of course, that Ankara had to apply the brakes on that relationship and sidle up once more to the Gulf countries and Riyadh above all.

The question was how.

Tehran had done nothing to use as a pretext for turning against it. It had differing outlooks on a number of regional issues, especially on how to handle the Syrian crisis and, to some extent, developments in Iraq. However, Ankara and Tehran had agreed to disagree in the interest of overcoming differences and prioritising their urgent economic needs. The only solution, therefore, was to revert to that old refrain of warning against the peril of “Shia expansionism”. It was no coincidence that Ankara picked up that tune again just as representatives from the Trump administration, such as CIA Director Mike Pompeo, headed to Ankara and Erdogan, himself, embarked on a tour of Gulf countries which included Manama and Riyadh.

Nor did it come as a surprise to see that sudden upsurge in anti-Iranian hostility in the Turkish mainstream press. Nothing appears in or disappears from the media of Erdogan’s Turkey without directives from above so as not to leave sensitive issues to the whims of chance or to allow conflicting opinions and information to stir doubt and confusion among a public that is already dizzied by how rapidly its government realigns its principles to suit shifting international circumstances.

So, over the course of a month an orchestrated cacophony of voices began to resound throughout the media — the press, television and social networking sites — lashing out against “sectarian” Iran and the “government of the mullahs”, as though Anatolian eyes had suddenly been opened to the evil of the heir to the peacock throne. And what better proof of that evil than the attack against the corridor that Turkish-backed forces in Syria had opened to evacuate women and children from Aleppo to the refuge of a “safe zone”.

A prominent columnist in the pro-Erdogan Yeni Safak set the tone. “It is very clear that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards plan not to leave any Sunni alive in Aleppo,” she wrote. “How can a sect that claims to belong to Islam bring itself to commit such savagery that conflicts with the laws of our faith? On what possible grounds does a different sect — the Shia — permit it to kill and murder on such a scale?”

Another columnist for the same newspaper added: “Even if the government has not said so explicitly, the fact is that there is a deep security crisis between Turkey and Iran.” The reason was that the latter was waging a war against all Islamic countries and it had attacked Turkey via Syria. Then, in a gesture of affection towards the Gulf countries, even if they were a tad late in showing solidarity after the coup attempt, he likened the “attack against Turkey in Syria” to the Houthi missile fire into Saudi Arabia in the direction of Mecca. Iranian missiles and tanks thirst to reach the holy sites, he warned, and if Iran is not stopped it will grow bolder in the next year or two and begin to attack the Arab Gulf.

Other government mouthpieces and pro-Erdogan analysts have chimed in, sounding a call for immediate “pre-emptive” action to halt the relentless expansion of the Iranian map. As a first step they have called for the creation of a “security shield” through the development of “solid security partnerships” between Ankara and the Gulf countries. Together, they should “launch the infrastructure for a long-range defensive operation that will extend from armaments acquisitions and the development of military units to the precise and detailed planning needed in order to guarantee the security of the region.”

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