Turkey and Iran: Cooperation on entangled interests

Pour citer cet article : Salih Bıçakçı, "Turkey and Iran: Cooperation on entangled interests," in Observatoire de la vie politique turque, 14 avril 2021, https://ovipot.hypotheses.org/15691.
Salih Bıçakçı

The Middle East is a region which has witnessed several wars and conflicts. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the region has witnessed the Iran- Iraq war (Defa-e Moqaddas), and was later shocked by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The First Gulf War then shook the world and this was followed by 9/11 that transformed all security preferences in the world. The Afghan war and the Second Gulf War which ended Saddam’s regime and took Iraq into a transition period are also milestones for regional security. All these conflicts led to US bases in Iraq and initiated resistance movements and the presence of Al-Qaidah. The Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war as by-products of the movement shifted all balances in the region. The nuclear enrichment episode in Iran was first paused by a cyber-attack (Stuxnet) [28] then Iran was forced to obey the rules of the P5+1 agreement [7] [24]. If you mark all these incidents on a map and a timeline, you could easily notice how Iran is in the middle of them. How Iran understands all these changes is the question we have to answer to understand its relationship with Turkey. States are not looking for physical survival as Realists emphasized, but states also seek the continuity of their certain practices and habits. Laing firstly coined the term ’ontological security’. Giddens presented a sociological context for Laing’s terminology. An ontological security framework is “based on routines of various forms. People handle dangers and the fears associated with them, in terms of the emotional and behavioural ‘formulae’ which have come to be part of their everyday behaviour and thought.” From the perspective of ontological security, “to trust in the stability of these routines, actors are able to build narratives, stories, and plans without being perpetually confronted by the contingent nature of their foundations.” [12] Up to the level of ontological security, agency requires a consistent cognitive setting and a degree of certainty to exercise the routines. As Mitzen clearly stated “Some, deep forms of uncertainty threaten their identity security. Where an actor has no idea what to expect, she cannot systematically relate ends to means, and it becomes unclear how to pursue her ends. Since ends are constitutive of identity, in turn, deep uncertainty renders the actor’s identity insecure.” [16]

Iran and Turkey share a long history and a border which have shaped certain forms and practices between them. The nature of this bilateral relationship could be depicted as continuous suspicion and deep competition in the region. In the last decade, two key events have boosted uncertainty for both actors. First is the nuclear deal and second is the Syrian Civil War. Both countries have major issues in domestic areas such as unemployment, corruption, ineffective public service, poverty, distribution of wealth, social infrastructure problems, disparity of gender balances, and political instability.

The pillars of Iran’s ontological security are formed by two concepts: maslahat which defines the public interest of the Iranian people and zarurat which explains necessities such as the protection of the Shia communities in several countries, Shiite shrines and hawzas, etc. Iran in the last decade has stretched and legitimized these two terms to build its networks of cooperation and coordination.

Iran has used two major tactics intensively to fulfil the requirements of these concepts. The first tactic is plausible deniability which could be understood as Iranian government officials denying that they have knowledge or responsibility in several operations due to lack of or absence of evidence that could connect them with the specific action or event [18]. Second is deliberate ambiguity where Iranian foreign policy follows an attitude of being intentionally ambiguous concerning its goals and targets. The nuclear issue and Iran’s intentions could be understood under the deliberate ambiguity category [6] These pillars and principles create a major framework for understanding Iranian security perspectives and practices in the region.

In 2005, the election of Ahmedinejad -former mayor of Tehran- to the Presidency changed the flow of events dramatically. After the US invasion of Afghanistan (2001) and the incursion into Iraq with an excuse of weapons of mass destruction, Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities were underlined which appeared as a possible threat to regional powers and the United States. Although Iranian influence of Afghanistan via Pakistan and support for resistance groups in Iraq is another dimension of the problem, Iran insisted on its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, the output of several years’ effort. Former nuclear negotiator and eminent conservative Ali Larjani asked several times why Iran had to give up its uranium. The UNSC adopted its resolution 1696 which “calls upon Iran without further delay to take the steps required by the IAEA Board of Governors in its resolution GOV/2006/14, which are essential to build confidence in the exclusively peaceful purpose of its nuclear program and to resolve outstanding questions”. The resolution also demanded the suspension of “all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities of Iran, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA” [26]. Iran insisted on its right to continue, and the international sanctions to push Iran to take political action did not work. However, international pressure rang bells of uncertainty in Iran. The economic sanctions have increased pressure on the government. Iran knows the consequences of economic sanctions from the Iraqi experience and how such action could paralyse its economy. In a short period of time, Tehran experienced chronic shortages of spare parts, raw materials, pharmaceuticals, medicine and other basic needs. Tehran used all possible under the radar cooperation to maintain flows in all sectors, which is rather difficult to organize in a world after 9/11. Iran organized all its logistics in micro size to be invisible and used unconventional networks and figures to transfer its revenues back to the country. Several countries in the Gulf, Central Asia and Turkey were utilized to sustain the flow of money or gold as well as required materials. This period was also critical to Iran’s involvement with Iraq in the level of support for resistance groups against the US military forces. The limited border control eased this mission. The end of Saddam’s tight controls on the border also triggered intensive drug trafficking from Iraq to Turkey or Syria then to Europe [4].

The first term of Ahmedinejad ended with the Sabz (Green) movement in 2009 which ended with clashes between the Basij and the Iranian opposition. Four million protesters on the streets really intimidated the government and recalled the revolutionary days of 1979. The Nizam (regime) had been shocked by the reality of counter-revolutionary ideas and afterward securitized Iran more than before. Even the possibility of the toppling of the Iranian Islamic regime with these public protests recalled the events during the Iranian revolution in 1979 therefore the contemporary protests made the Iranian political elite more suspicious and vigilant than before to prevent any possible counter-revolutionary protests (events) in Iran. The conservative attitude of the Ahmedinejad government over the nuclear issued has stretched regional politics. Later, Tehran noticed a coordinated US and Israel malware attack on nuclear power plants in Bushehr and Natanz. This sudden attack also gave the impression in Iran that all the world was against the Iranian nuclear enrichment project. This sense invoked ontological insecurity in Iran and later Tehran focused on building its cyber capacity. This attack was a milestone for the formation of Iranian cyber capabilities and its proxies in the domain. In a UNSC meeting on 9 June 2010 additional sanctions were implemented against Iran, even though Turkey voted against this decision [27], Erdogan clearly stated that Turkey was not content with the nuclear proliferation of any country in the region [25]. In December 2010, the Arab uprisings were interpreted by Iran as the extension of Islamic awakening (Bidariye Eslami) and in the revolts Tehran perceived opportune grounds to expand its influence in the Middle East [11]. Meanwhile, the Obama administration had decided to withdraw from Iraq at the end of 2011. Ahmedinejad even claimed this action would not change Iran’s approach, but in reality the Al-Quds Force was swiftly increasing its influence on the ground [5].

Iran intensified its operations on different grounds and focused on three points as means of security:

  1. Asymmetric and Hybrid warfare Iran utilized the Al-Quds Force and its alliances in different locations to cooperate as much as possible in the defeat of its adversaries and also to weaken their stability in the region. To achieve this goal, Iran also started information campaigns that aimed to convince the audience of the legitimacy of its actions [2]
  2. Ballistic Missiles and Satellite program Iran intentionally hid the major characteristics of the programs. This area is one of the domains in which Iran is using deliberate ambiguity tactics to increase its deterrence and coercion in the region. Iran’s evolving capacity (Shabab 1-2-3, Fatah 110, Zulfaghar, Qiam 1, Sejjil, Khoramshahr, Ashura) in the development of its missile program also intimidates its neighbours in the region. This capacity also affects its nuclear enrichment program. International society has concerned that Iran will use nuclear warheads in its missiles [22]. Iran also has a remarkable space program that expands Tehran’s offense/defence capacities. Throughout its research process, Iran discreetly continued its research on the subject to reinforce its intercontinental missile technology with a space component [20]
  3. Cyber Offense and Intelligence program Iran expediated this program after the Stuxnet attack and has developed remarkable expertise on Critical Infrastructure (and Operational Technology-OT). Iran is also obtaining tools that are required for launching a cyber-attack and also coordinating social media operations for the benefits of Iranian policy. Iran is also probing the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the infrastructure of the regional countries [9][8]. Several oil refinery facilities experienced such attacks and Turkey faced a similar attack on its energy grids [15].

These means for Iranian security have been building for years and utilized in different layers in the regional politics. Shifts in power politics and the complex regional security have presented Iran with an opportunity to benefit as much as possible. After 9/11, Turkey started to focus on Middle Eastern politics more than expected. Ankara’s refusal to cooperate with the US during their incursion into Iraq helped its reputation in the region. Turkey’s rejection also caused tension between the partners. However, Iraq issues were critical for Turkey not only from the perspective of the Kurdish question but also regarding energy security. Turkey’s history with Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani has also been significant and old friends are now in different positions due to the US incursion [29]. Washington took a prime role in the building of a new Iraq. This situation affected their historical threat perceptions of Ankara and Tehran which have an agreement to contain the Peshmarga who obtained “heavy arms that included a large fleet of Russian-made warplanes left from the Saddam era” [1] The vigilant cooperation of both countries continued until the Arab revolts. Iran utilized all its capacity to influence the Baghdad administration as well as supporting the insurgency with weapons and funding. In a survey conducted in Iraq, Iran was viewed as the neighbouring state most likely to instigate a civil war in Iraq by 50,9% of the responders, well ahead of Turkey 13,2% [14].

The Arab Uprisings and New Regional Security

From 2003 to 2010, Ankara presented a secular Muslim state model which was praised by several European states as well as the US. However, the democratization within domestic politics was dramatically slowed down. In this period, it was mostly shown as an alternative model to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as well as to Iran. During this time, Iran built up a solid intelligence network by utilizing several Shiite and Sunni groups to follow the US troops and displayed remarkable asymmetrical warfare capacity. Iran cautiously involved the Arab uprisings while keeping the effects of the Sabz movement in mind. Turkey’s first significant involvement in the Arab uprisings appeared in the Libyan crisis due to its economic ties and investments. Ankara even offered a safe way out to Qaddafi in order to minimize the conflict on the ground [21]. The flames in Libya swiftly jumped to Egypt which interested Tehran intensely because of the Shiite presence and the possible cooperation prospects with Ikhwan al-Muslimun (The Muslim Brotherhood). Ikhwan and Tehran arranged a meeting in Turkey to form an alliance against Saudi Arabia [23]. These types of cooperation by Iran with third parties quickly turned Turkey into an extension of its coordination network. It is really difficult to comprehend the Turkey-Iran relationship on a binary understanding of conflict or cooperation. The relationship has all the colour of both conflict and cooperation at different levels which have formed throughout history. Both states know their capacity and weak points well. For example, in the Iran – Ikhwan meeting in 2014, Iran considered the participation of Qasım Suleimani, but they also know that his entry into Turkey would be really difficult.

Both Turkey and Iran cooperated with Morsi’s Egypt on different levels. However, this honeymoon ended more quickly than expected. Ikhwan cooperation with Ankara and Tehran also related to the Palestinian issue. There is always competition between Tehran and Ankara to be effective on the issue. The Mavi Marmara incident was also a significant milestone when it was observed that Ankara created a remarkable impression on the Palestinian people. Iran is deeply aware of the leverage capacity of influence over the Palestinian issue for the Middle East and is worried about Ankara’s capacity on the topic. Meanwhile, the spread of the Arab uprisings swiftly affected Syria. In the beginning, Turkey was hesitant to intervene in the Syrian issue due to its history with this country, its experiences with Iraq and other governmental matters. Iran swiftly intervened in the Syrian uprisings and assisted the Assad regime in sustaining a certain grasp on the revolts. Tehran also impelled Hizballah’s joining the Assad regime’s pressure on the protests. The public protests quickly turned into armed resistance with the intervention of several Jihadist groups which participated in Iraqi resistance movements. The Syrian civil war is a bumpy road for Ankara which has changed its policy from time to time, up to the emergence of new actors on the scene[3]. Meanwhile the Gezi Park protests quickly changed Turkey’s agenda and opened new security pages for discussion. The public protests which had followed a similar pattern to Iran’s Sabz movement were rapidly securitized by the government. Rumours regarding Iranian spies’ involvement in the protests circulated in the media[17]. Iran denied all claims regarding its involvement in the Gezi Park Protests.

The presence of Daesh complicated the problems and Tehran’s involvement in the conflict became deeper and stronger. Suleimani extended the already operational Al-Quds Force cooperation within Iraq to arrange a defence line (Fatemiyyun and the Zaynabiyyun Brigades) against Daesh to protect Shia communities at least. On June 2014, a Daesh operation swept through Northern Iraq and its environment and also announced its caliphate after the annexation. During this operation, Daesh captured the Turkish Consulate General in Mosul and abducted its staff. Throughout this process, Turkey and several local authorities including Iran -affiliated groups had some intelligence communication to spot the location where the Turkish Consulate staff were being kept. Meanwhile, Iran controlled the area intensively with drones and assisted its allied local powers.[13] After saving its consulate staff, Turkey initiated Operation Shah Euphrates to carry the historical tomb of Suleyman Shah across its border. This operation followed Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive in which Ankara targeted Kurdish groups in North Syria to limit their mobility. In these operations, Iran was content with Turkey’s operation against Daesh and several Kurdish groups which helped Tehran to achieve its goal to sustain peace in Syria. Turkey wants regime transition in Syria but Iran strongly supports the Assad regime to prevent the emergence of such an outcome. Iran also aims at the restoration of the status quo ante bellum [19] which could jeopardize Turkey’s presence in Northern Syria. Ankara wants to construct its domination in Syria by building its control zone and transform its Syrian border into a zone protected from Kurdish groups. There are no clear signs or plans indicating what Ankara wants for a future Syria. However, Ankara would not be content with the existence of Syria under intensive Iranian hegemony. Such Iranian control over Syria in addition to Iraq would also isolate Turkey from the Middle East.

In all scenarios, Ankara should be able to achieve its goals without disturbing Iranian balances in the Middle East and/or it should be ready for possible outcomes. The result of the coming Presidential elections in Iran and Biden’s nuclear policies which could impose some more sanctions could change the dynamics on the ground. The ongoing sanctions are already deeply affecting everyday life in Tehran and the cost of resistance in Syria is also a matter of discussion in Iran. The University of Maryland is regularly conducting annual polls in Iran, and recent polls reveal that economic pressure is high in Iran regarding sanctions and corruption [10]. In the coming election, there are several candidates, however only a few are eminent, such as Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf (http://ghalibaf.ir), Hossein Dehqani Podeh (https://twitter.com/ dehghanmedia?) and even though not registered Seyyed Ebrahim Rais al-Sadati (aka. Raisi -http://raisi.ir) would be another eminent candidate in the election race. There is strong anxiety among the public that Pasdaran(IRGC) supported candidates could take Iran in a new direction. In the last months, the pointer has leaned in favour of hardliners and Pasdaran associated figures. The strong and deep relationship between Ayatullah Al-Uzma and the Pasdaran is preparing such a scene. The political pressure as well as sanctions and quick-changing balances in the region, which also triggers ontological insecurities in Iran, also catalyse this synergy between two significant institutions. The coming presidential election in Iran is also related to an unspoken competition. In this context, the contest is also connected with the succession of Ayatullah Ali Khamenei who is 81 years old. The huge question about who would succeed him is now on the table. Raisi is also a remarkable nominee in this category as well, and he is frequently seen in the recent close circle photos near the Ayatullah. Khamenei’s son Mujtaba is also another silent name that circulates in the discussions.

All these prospective events could deeply affect Turkey – Iran relations. The continuity is a persistent rule in Iranian foreign policy, whoever is elected, maslahat and zarurat would not change. However, policy contents would change for the benefit of Iranian regional goals. Turkey should form alternative alliances which would lessen its dependencies on Iran and its networks.


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Salih Bıçakçı

Associate Professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul. He completed his B.A. in History at Marmara University Education Faculty in 1994, and his M.A. at Marmara University Turkic Research Institute in 1996. Bıçakcı received his Ph.D. from Tel Aviv University in Israel in 2004. Dr. Bıçakcı began his academic career at Işık University and took part in numerous academic projects on identity, security, and terrorism. He has thought classes in several national and international universities on the Middle East in International Politics, International Security, International Relations Theory, and Turkish Foreign Policy. He has made evaluations and presentations on cybersecurity at the NATO Defense Against Terrorism Centre of Excellence (COEDAT), NATO Command and Control Centre of Excellence (C2COE), and NATO Maritime Security Centre of Excellence. He has though Cyber Security and Middle Eastern Security courses at the Armed Forces Academy of the Turkish War College. He has presented on international security and cybersecurity at several international academic conferences.

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