Turkey and Iran have a long, tumultuous, and, at times, contentious history. The border between the two countries has not changed since the 1639 Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin. Of course, contact between Turks and Persians occurred much earlier when, in the tenth century, Turkic peoples migrating west invaded present-day Iran, and dominated it for centuries. However, the Turks were unable to resist the influence of Persian culture, which came to permeate Turkish society—including the language, government, and Turkish artwork. Today, an estimated 18-30 million Turkic people live in Iran.
Coexistence in a Turbulent Region
Both nations are significant regional middle powers with outspoken foreign policies that seek to strengthen their positions throughout the Middle East. Iran asserts itself as the leader of the Shia community, works to propagate its political-religious philosophy and defends Shiites around the globe – in addition to serving state interests. Turkey, on the other hand, is a Sunni state, but does not seek to expand its power as a leader of Sunnis—though it does prefer to align with Sunni states when possible.
It would not be inaccurate to argue that the two states view one another as security threats and regional competitors. Indeed, their foreign policies all but guarantee a somewhat adversarial relationship between Ankara and Tehran. However, a full-blown conflict between Turkey and Iran, whether it occurs now or in the future, is less likely. History reveals that the two neighbors have avoided direct conflict through centuries, even under various international and domestic circumstances. Turkey and Iran have coexisted during the times of empires and as nation-states, even through regime change or changes in leadership. In an interview with the author, Hakk Uygur, of the IRAM Center, explained that Turkish-Iranian relations rise above current politics and will thus typically remain as they are, despite the immediate politics of the day.
Analysis of recent events appears to confirm the seeming aloofness of Turkey-Iran relations. Although Turkey does not entirely oppose the imposition of sanctions against Iran, it is reluctant to join them. While Ankara concurs with the U.S. that Iran should not possess nuclear weapons, it presses Washington to be excluded from some sanctions, particularly those pertaining to the purchase of oil.
Distrust without Conflict
The foundations of non-confrontational Turkish-Iranian ties are decidedly realist in nature. First, the proximity of the two states raises the stakes of any potential conflict between the two. Additionally, instability in Iran—of the sort that Turkey has already witnessed in Iraq and Syria—will undoubtedly result in increased migration, threat of terrorism, and many security and economic issues for Ankara. A rehabilitated (or at the least, stable) Iran is preferable to one that is teetering on the brink of collapse.
Moreover, for Turkey, the threat Iran poses is secondary and indirect in comparison to other countries. For this reason, the general stability of Turkish-Iranian ties and the preservation of delicate balance will likely continue in the years to come, despite minor tensions between the two states. For instance, although Iran shows its enmity toward Turkey indirectly by supporting proxies in Iraq and Syria, Ankara views other U.S.-allied armed groups, like YPG, far more threatening to its national security than sporadic attacks launched by Iran’s regional proxy forces.
Although the two middle powers have not come into direct conflict, they exhibit significant mistrust toward each other and compete through proxies in other countries. It may be claimed that Iran’s anti-Turkey foreign policy is more malevolent, given that Tehran has always had political objectives to pursue in the region through an ideology-based expansionist policy. Therefore, it is possible to imagine one country using chaos in a neighboring country against the another, and vice versa. For instance, there is a widespread belief in Turkey that Tehran could compel Afghan migrants to cross the border into Turkey to apply pressure to Ankara. Whether there is any truth to these beliefs is almost irrelevant—Iran clearly holds a “migration card” against Turkey and most likely won’t refrain from utilizing it.
The threat posed to Turkey by Iran-backed militias has grown more direct in recent years. In northern Iraq, Turkey has been engaged against the PKK in the Qandil mountains. Although Turkey has little problem with Iran-backed militias themselves, Tehran’s militants work with the Kurdish separatist group to fight the Turkish army. Ankara remains adamant that the Iranian government continues to direct Shiite organizations to carry out their attacks. Furthermore, Iranian officials do not hold back in denouncing Turkish operations in Iraq, despite the fact that Turkish operations target the Kurdish groups, not Iranian-backed proxies.
The same story has played out in Syria, as well. When Turkey’s armed forces conduct military operations in northern Syria, Turkish troops come into contact with Iran’s proxies, as well as YPG and Syrian regime forces. Iran seeks to ensure that its proxies continue to freely operate in both Iraq and Syria, whereas Ankara aims to eradicate perceived threats from its two Arab neighbors. Increasingly frequent clashes between Turkish forces and Iranian-backed proxies raises the possibility of direct military confrontation between Turkey and these militias, potentially leading to a rupture in the bilateral relationship.
Despite these sticking points, the two countries appear willing to employ diplomatic means to convey their differences. Last month, on June 22, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Ankara to discuss rising tensions between the two states after Turkish security forces foiled an Iranian intelligence operation in Istanbul targeting Israeli tourists. The tension between the two states became clear as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not respond to several invitations to visit Tehran, until July 2022, when he visited Tehran for a trilateral summit with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the long run, Iran’s destabilizing foreign policy may also prove counterproductive for Tehran in a rather unexpected way; more aggressive Iranian behavior has the second-order effect of pushing Turkey to pursue Israel and the Gulf states, who increasingly fear Iranian ambitions. In many ways, Turkish-Iranian relations may be compared to Turkey’s relations with Russia. Despite exhibiting a host of divergent interests, Russia and Turkey cooperate where possible, rather than engage in conflict. The same is true of Turkish-Iranian relations, too, and it should continue. The benefits of cooperation, even across a limited number of sectors, far outstrip potentially punitive policies. In sum, it may be said that Iran and Turkey will remain distrustful of each other into the future, but that their mutual suspicion will likely never spill into outright conflict. The two states will maintain the same frank dialogue today that has guided their relations for centuries; in short, do not expect the long arc of Turkish-Iran relations to shift dramatically any time soon.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.