A rising cold war between two regional powerhouses is inevitable
Kamran Bokhari Dr. Kamran Bokhari is an author and a scholar on national security and foreign policy
On Feb. 16, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that his country will expand its cross-border operations against Kurdish militants in Iraq after the killing of 13 kidnapped Turkish citizens. Speaking to a gathering of supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdoğan said, “We will stay in the areas we secure as long as necessary to prevent similar attacks again.”
This statement came two days after an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia threatened to attack Turkish military forces in northern Iraq. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a powerful Shiite militia incorporated into the Iraqi state security apparatus, warned: “If the government continues to remain silent, the Iraqi people and the resistance will face the occupiers and will adopt a determined stance to repulse them.” This Turkish-Iranian conflict in northern Iraq betokens a rising cold war between two regional powerhouses.
Though Turkey and Iran may appear to cooperate more than they compete, a confrontation between them is inescapable, especially as Tehran has all but won a 40-year conflict with Saudi Arabia. While the Saudi kingdom was not able to put up much resistance as Iran was carving out its sphere of influence in the region since 1979, Tehran will have a very tough time defending it against an increasingly assertive Turkey. For the moment, the Iranians are blocking the Turkish path into the Arab world, but Ankara has more staying power than Tehran. This Turkey-Iran struggle will define the region for a long time to come, particularly because the interests of the United States and Turkey are aligned when it comes to rolling back Iran’s influence in the region.
Most observers continue to identify the main regional conflict in the Middle East as the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran — who are seen as leading their respective Sunni and Shiite camps. Few realize that this decades-old clash ended some four years ago when Iranian-supported Syrian forces captured Aleppo back from the rebels — dashing Saudi hopes that a collapse of the Assad regime would weaken Iran’s position in the region. Not long after that, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates failed to defeat Tehran-backed and al-Houthi-led opposition forces in Yemen. That the Saudi-Iranian conflict ended in favor of Iran is not surprising.
Arab states have long been suffering from a chronic, intrinsic weakness — a condition that the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings exacerbated — that created strategic vacuums in the region. Already having immensely benefited from the 2003 U.S. move to effect regime change in Iraq, Iran’s clerical regime was able to further enhance its regional position by exploiting the process of autocratic meltdown, which aggravated the preexisting crisis of Sunni Arab leadership. However, long before the weakening of autocratic Arab states provided greater openings, the Iranians were leveraging two older dynamics.
The first is the well-known phenomenon of jihadism, which has garnered a tremendous amount of attention since the 9/11 attacks. A second and more important dynamic is what I call geo-sectarianism. It is the Sunni-Shiite conflict in geopolitical (as opposed to religious) terms, in which these two sects behave as transnational identity camps. Surprisingly, geo-sectarianism has received far less attention despite its long history.
It begins in the 10th century, when centralized Sunni authority, which until then had a monopoly over much of Muslim geography, atrophied. The decline of the Abbasid dominion enabled the first wave of Shiite geopolitical ascension. Several different Shiite polities emerged, such as the Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa that extended into the Levant and the Red Sea coastal region of Hejaz; the Buwahid emirate centered in Mesopotamia and Persia; the Qarmatian state on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula; and the Zaidi Imamate in Yemen.
Eventually, in the late 11th through the early 13th centuries, Sunnis regained their posture in the form of the rise of the Seljuk Empire, the Ayyubid dynasty, and the Mamluk Sultanate, forcing a contraction of Shiite power. This shift in the geo-sectarian balance of power, with the strategic weakening of the region’s Sunni majority, paved the way for Shiite powers to fill the vacuum. The swing between Sunni and Shiite dominance has been cyclical, occurring roughly 500 years apart. About five centuries after the first occurrence, a second wave of Shiite resurgence took place with the rise of the Safavid empire in 1501. The Safavids posed a significant challenge to both the major Sunni powers of the time, the Ottomans in the Middle East and the Mughals in South Asia.
Fast forward another half a millennium or so to the late 20th century, and we are once again in an era of Shiite renascence with the Islamic Republic of Iran at its vanguard. This latest manifestation of geo-sectarianism occurs again because of intense intra-Sunni competition. The Iranians understand well the unique moment they are in and are not going to let go of this historic opportunity. This explains Tehran’s aggressive behavior in its efforts to try to alter the region’s security architecture — despite being under severe international sanctions, which have taken a toll on the political and economic well-being of the Islamic Republic.
Hence their feverish efforts to exploit the three main regional tendencies — geo-sectarianism, jihadism, and autocratic meltdown. These are not three disparate dynamics in motion independent of one another; they are interconnected, each influencing the other. The outcome of this complex triangular process has been that Iran’s net strategic position in the region has become far better than that of Saudi Arabia.
Al-Houthi movement has taken the geo-sectarian war into the Saudi heartland, something that Tehran’s proxies in Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria did not do.
In fact, when the Arab Spring broke out, Iran was well-positioned to benefit from the hollowing out of the traditional powerhouses in the region. The ensuing chaos allowed the Iranians to expand their geopolitical footprint from the Mesopotamian-Levantine landmass to the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen is a prime example: Iran’s surrogate al-Houthi movement has taken the geo-sectarian war into the Saudi heartland, something that Tehran’s proxies in Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria did not do.
Despite all these gains, and like all powers, Iran faces constraints that limit the extent to which it can expand its regional influence. What is critical here, however, is that there are no countervailing forces in the Arab world that can push Tehran out of the areas that it already dominates by proxy (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen). Iran was able to make such deep inroads in the first place because there was nothing to block its forays.
That said, the uprising in Syria represented a major threat to Iran’s strategic plans. A toppling of the Assad regime would have been akin to punching a critical hole in Iran’s contiguous sphere of influence, which stretches west of the Zagros mountains to the Eastern Mediterranean. Iran would be cut off from its main regional proxy, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and a Syrian battlespace dominated by Sunni rebels threatened the fragile, pro-Iranian Shiite polity in Iraq. For Iran’s clerical regime, this was a doomsday scenario representing the reversal of over 30 years of its foreign policy efforts.
Therefore, the Iranians invested heavily in their efforts to preserve the Assad regime. Given that their intelligence and military capabilities were far superior to those of Saudi Arabia and the Syrian military proved far more effective than the rebels, the Islamic Republic was able to overcome the immediate threat to its regional plans. The key factor that worked in Iran’s favor was that the Sunni side of the geo-sectarian equation had become even more divided than before. The Saudis never had a monopoly on influence in the Arab world, and the uprising in Syria led to the emergence of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, which became a much bigger challenge to the Saudis than al Qaeda ever was.
ISIS was able to exploit to its advantage the geo-sectarian conflict between the Saudis and Iranians. The more the Saudis supported the anti-Assad uprising in Syria, the more they were feeding the ISIS beast. Unlike their Iranian rivals, the Saudis performed poorly as far as tradecraft in proxy warfare was concerned. In addition, factions supported by the Saudis lost ground to both ISIS and al Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia alone could not manage this and has always needed assistance from the UAE. More importantly, Saudi Arabia also faced opposition from Qatar, given the latter’s efforts to pursue a foreign policy independent of the kingdom. Riyadh has long been threatened by Doha’s close links with Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood persuasion, as well as other, far more radical elements. The Qataris themselves are not as big of a challenge to the Saudis as is the fact they are allies of Turkey.
The Turks saw in the Arab Spring an opportunity to reestablish themselves in their old stomping grounds. To this end, Turkey is trying to exploit the crisis of Sunni Arab leadership. Intra-Sunni struggles are thus transforming geo-sectarianism. The Saudi-Iranian conflict is being replaced by the struggle between Iran and Turkey — the two historical rivals in the region.
While Qatar is its only Arab state ally, Ankara’s principal tool was the Muslim Brotherhood movement. In the early years following the Arab Spring uprisings, Turkey was hopeful that the Brotherhood would emerge as the main alternative to the Arab regimes. Its rise to power in Tunisia and Egypt was encouraging for Ankara; however, that optimism proved short-lived when a 2013 coup in Egypt ousted the Brotherhood government within a year of its taking office.
While unable to succeed against Iran in Syria, the Saudis and the Emiratis were able to check Turkey’s efforts to expand its influence via the Brotherhood. In many ways, Turkey was not ready to take advantage of the Arab Spring on a regional scale given that it had been out of the Middle Eastern game for nearly a century. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and until the rise of the Erdoğan regime, the Turks were focused on becoming a Western power. When the Islamist-rooted AKP of Erdoğan came to power, Turkey reoriented its foreign policy focus toward the Middle East.
This shift was as much ideologically driven as it was geopolitical. The Turks realized that it would not gain European Union membership, which it had been unsuccessfully seeking for decades. Besides, membership in the EU was no longer as attractive as it once was. Turkey was trying to reassert itself as a regional power and was no longer content with limiting itself to acting multilaterally as a NATO member state. Ankara has been increasingly moving toward a unilateral foreign policy, and the one region where it can pursue this agenda is the Middle East.
Even though Turkey is the largest political, military, and economic power in the Middle East, it faces several obstacles in its path to geopolitical recovery. Perhaps the most significant is on the home front, where the ruling AKP continues to face several challenges. It began with the military-led Kemalist establishment, which it was able to overwhelm with the help of its one-time ally, the Gülen movement. However, it was not too long after civilian supremacy over the military was established that the AKP began feuding with the Gülenists, which culminated in the failed 2016 coup that facilitated Erdoğan’s efforts to entrench himself in power.
Turkey’s slide toward autocracy has weakened the AKP, as was demonstrated by the results of the latest municipal elections in which the ruling party lost control of the mayoralties of the country’s three main urban centers. In addition, after many years of economic growth under AKP rule, the Turkish economy is on the wane. Meanwhile, the long-standing problem of Kurdish separatism is constraining Turkey from both a domestic and foreign policy point of view. Turkey also finds itself at odds with both the United States and Russia with regards to its Syria policy.
But even if these domestic factors constrain Turkey’s desire for great-power status, the country cannot avoid entanglement in the conflict on its southern periphery. Already, the country has become home to some 3 million Syrian refugees. It fears that the growing influence of the Syrian Kurds, especially after the ethnic minority group played a lead role in dismantling the ISIS caliphate, could energize a domestic Kurdish movement. Additionally, ISIS is down but not out, and Salafist-jihadist groups dominate the rebel landscape in Idlib province.
In other words, there are plenty of other drivers that make it imperative that Turkey increase its military footprint in Syria. Of course, the first goal involves limiting the autonomy of Syrian Kurds. Ankara is in the process of assuming the patronship of the various rebel factions in order to marshal them into a coherent force — capable of weakening Kurdish control over areas formerly under ISIS control. Eventually, Turkey will want to change the nature of the Syrian regime, especially as it is arguably in an irreversible process of decay.
Iran saved the regime from the rebels, but by the time that happened, the Assad regime had become a shell of its former self. Syria is a country in disintegration, with President Bashar al-Assad leading the biggest militia coalition rather than an actual state. This status quo is unsustainable, and the Iranians lack options. Meanwhile, the Turks are determined to fill the growing vacuum on their southern frontier.
Iran understands it is only a matter of time before Turkey will pose a serious threat to the inroads Tehran has made in the region since the 1980s. The last time these two powers were locked in a geopolitical competition, the Turks controlled Iraq and Syria. The current situation is an unprecedented reversal of fortunes. Therefore, the Iranians seek to consolidate themselves as much as possible because this opportunity may not come again for centuries.
Each of these factors places Turkey directly in the crosshairs of Iran. Tehran realizes that if there is one actor that can pose a threat to its interests, it is Ankara. From the Iranian strategic point of view, the present situation is a unique historical moment. For the first time since the early seventh century, Persians are dominant in Mesopotamia and the Levant. Moreover, they see themselves as blocking the Turks from the Arab world as opposed to being blocked by them, which was the case during the Ottoman-Safavid struggle.
The Islamic Republic has had nearly a 30-year head start in projecting influence into the Arab world, while the Turks are still struggling in the northern periphery of Syria. However, Iran cannot take this situation for granted because Turkey is both strong and ambitious in the region. The Iranian position in Syria (and by extension its regional sphere of influence) is thus highly vulnerable. What this means is that the Iranians will be working hard to limit the extent to which Turkey is able to gain a foothold in the country.
Conversely, for Turkey to be a regional player, it will have to break out of the Iranian blockade in Iraq and Syria. Northern Iraq (especially the Sinjar region) serves as a critical piece of geopolitical real estate that allows Iran to use Kurdish separatism to check Turkey’s ambitions in both Iraq and Syria while managing the same problem at home. This is a direct outcome of Tehran emerging as the biggest beneficiary of the ISIS defeat. It is the prerequisite to being able to play a bigger role in the Arabian Peninsula/Persian Gulf region, and the wider Middle East. Like Tehran, Ankara also sees the vacuum created by autocratic meltdown in the Arab world as an opportunity to advance its strategic ambitions.
Iran sees itself as the defender of Shiite interests and the vanguard of the region’s “Resistance Axis,” and Turkey, likewise, sees itself as the champion of Sunni Muslims.
It is true that at present the Turks and the Iranians are playing nice with each other, but these are ephemeral moments; their respective imperatives will lead them to collide with one another regardless of their subjective preferences. Iran sees itself as the defender of Shiite interests and the vanguard of the region’s “Resistance Axis,” and Turkey, likewise, sees itself as the champion of Sunni Muslims.
Iran needs to protect its western flank extending out to the Mediterranean — the historical superhighway from where it has seen numerous invasions throughout history. Ideally, Tehran would want its allies to form strong governments in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Obviously, that is unlikely to happen. Therefore, it will focus on ensuring its proxies in all three countries can retain the influence they currently have.
From Turkey’s point of view, Iran is in its way, and a deeply fragmented Sunnidom craves a patron. Of course, the Levant and Mesopotamia are not the only places the Turks are trying to push into. Ankara has been trying to carve out a sphere of influence in the strategic vacuum that is Libya. However, the energy-rich North African state is a bridge too far for now, especially with the competition it is facing from Russia, the UAE, and Egypt. For the foreseeable future, Libya will be a long-distance Turkish outpost in the Mediterranean, and Turkey’s main arena of focus will be its land borders with the Arab world and places in which it cannot avoid conflicting with Iran, especially as Russian influence wanes due to its increasing financial limitations.
While the main theater for the Turkish-Iranian geopolitical struggle will be the Levant, a new and unexpected battlespace has emerged involving these two powers in the form of the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, which has proven to be a watershed event. Sensing Russian weakness, the Turks saw an opening and took it by providing close support to Azerbaijan’s military operations that resulted in Baku retaking large swaths of territory that it had lost to the Armenians in the early 1990s. That Russia could not stop the Turks from effecting this shift in the balance of power in the South Caucasus speaks to Turkey’s determination to expand its sphere of influence across a wide geography.
The territorial gains made by Azerbaijan have created two new realities. First, Turkey now has the makings of a land corridor from Nakhichevan through Nagorno-Karabakh to mainland Azerbaijan and beyond to the Caspian Sea & Central Asia. Second, and more importantly, is that Azerbaijan now has a longer border with Iran, which represents a huge threat to Tehran given its own restive ethnic Azeri minority, especially at a time when Iran is under significant pressure on numerous fronts (financial, Israeli attacks on its positions in the Levant, and even domestically). The Turks have inserted themselves into the South Caucasus by charting a geopolitical path between the Russians to the north and the Iranians to the south.
The degree to which the Iranians feel threatened by the Turkish gains on their northern frontier can be gauged from a Dec. 11 tweet from Iran’s foreign minister, who bitterly chided Erdoğan for reciting an Azeri-Iranian poem about the division of Azerbaijan’s territory between Russia and Iran in the 19th century. “President Erdoğan was not informed that what he ill-recited in Baku refers to the forcible separation of areas … from (the) Iranian motherland. NO ONE can talk about OUR beloved Azerbaijan,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Considering that Turkey and Iran (despite being on the opposite sides of the war in Syria) have had close relations, Zarif’s tweet is a noteworthy shift in the tenor of bilateral ties.
Indeed, media reports showed that Erdoğan’s remarks were deemed highly offensive. Clearly, Tehran is feeling threatened that the outcome of the 2020 war has created a situation that could fan separatist tendencies among Iran’s Azeri minority. The Iranian reaction also included summoning the Turkish ambassador to the foreign ministry, where he was “informed that the era of territorial claims and expansionist empires is over. Iran does not allow anyone to meddle in its territorial integrity.”
Iran’s sense of vulnerability is also informed by the fact that its geo-sectarian modus operandi has failed in the case of Azerbaijan. Though it is a Shiite majority nation, Azerbaijan’s secular character has insulated it from Iranian efforts to expand its influence. On the contrary, the Iranians have long found themselves vulnerable to cross-border, ethnic Azeri (a Turkic people) dynamics. For the longest time, Iran took comfort from the fact its ally, Armenia, had the upper hand in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and that the Russians were managing the situation.
However, now that Ankara and its ally Baku are on a strong footing, the Iranians will have to worry about the Turks not just to their west but also to their north. What is interesting in all of this is that neither side seeks conflict with the other, but their respective objectives, shaped by shared geographic environs, are steering them toward greater conflict. The South Caucasus will remain a secondary arena for Iran and Turkey because the states in the region remain robust. In sharp contrast, Iraq and Syria are shattered states where armed, non-state actors represent the primary forces, which in the coming years will be the main Turkish-Iranian battlespace.
The relationship between Turkey and Iran makes it hard to see the burgeoning competition. The perception of a Turkey-Iran alignment is often reinforced by frequent diplomatic overtures, bilateral agreements, and the support of some allies against seemingly common adversaries. This would explain why even otherwise very informed people speak of an axis of Turkey, Iran, and Qatar versus the bloc that includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, and Egypt.
There is often talk in policy circles about the need to roll back Iranian influence in the region. But the question is who will lead this effort, as Iran and its proxies will not be dislodged from the Arab world without the involvement of an external force. Certainly, the United States does not want to commit to another major military campaign, especially not in the Middle East. Israel is only concerned with making sure the Iranians do not get too comfortable to where they threaten the Jewish state. That leaves Turkey as the only power with both the intent and capability to confront the Iranians. It may not happen for a while, but it is inevitable.