What We Can Learn about Iran-Turkey Relations from the Coup Attempt

On Monday, July 18, The New York Times published an editorial entitled “The Countercoup in Turkey”. After a particularly eventful weekend in the Easternmost NATO ally state, it was, naturally, all over the news. But why was the cover image a picture of the Iranian flag?

To people who took a middle school geography class, Turkey and Iran are pretty distinct countries — Turkey is a staple for Thanksgiving food jokes and “I-ran to Iraq” is a cute pneumonic device to remember Persian Gulf countries — the editorial, however, doesn’t mention Iran at all. Was the picture just a mistake on the part of the NYT team, or did the image actually have some relevance?

Friday night, everyone seemed to be asking, “Where is Erdoğan?” The president was vacationing in the resort town of Marmaris when the coup began, but as the coup attempt unfolded, his whereabouts were unknown. Even during his now-infamous FaceTime call and text messages to the nation, his location was unclear until he landed at Istanbul Atatürk Airport several hours later. During this time, when the fate of the AKP regime was in question, rumors flew: there were claims that Erdoğan was going to Germany or had been rejected entrance to the UK, speculations that he might be en route to Egypt or Azerbaijan, and that he had touched down in Tehran before heading to Qatar. But why would Erdoğan, a politician not known for strong ties with Iran, be in Tehran instead of one of the several neighboring states he maintains friendly relations with? The rumor, posted by several Iranian journalists and picked up by The Washington Post, ended up being false: Erdoğan reappeared in Istanbul several hours later to give a press conference.

Despite Iran’s condemnation of the coup attempt, Iran-Turkey relations are far from healthy and stable. The countries have had disagreements over the Syrian Civil War, in which Iran supports the President Assad, who has been called a terrorist by Erdoğan on numerous occasions. Turkey, on the other hand, supports numerous Syrian Opposition groups who fight against the Assad regime. Iran is openly critical of Turkey’s close ties with Saudi Arabia and normalization of relations with Israel. Many of the points of contention appear to reflect the conflicting ideological agendas of the Turkish and Iranian states: the Sunni and Shia interests held by the two governments, respectively.

While not an officially religious state like Iran, Turkey’s government has become increasingly Islamist in the past decade, and the ‘no problems with neighbors’ policy has prioritized strengthening relationships with other primarily Sunni states in the region. Despite the Syrian Civil War’s appearance as a Sunni-versus-Shia proxy conflict, there are motivations behind Turkey and Iran’s involvement that go deeper than just ideology. Strategic interests are playing out on a large stage, and all parties have economic or security-related motivations behind their actions. Despite not being a Shia hardliner, Syria’s Assad is supported economically and militarily by Iran: perhaps the regime thinks this is the best path to stability in the region? Or, maybe in self-interest, they hope to gain something from Assad’s rule. Syria’s support of Hezbollah certainly has something to do with it — Iran’s ability to counter Israel is an important part of its foreign policy and security position in the region. Turkey’s motivation in supporting the rebels is likely the hope that a more pro-Turkey leader will be installed, and hopefully one that shares the Turkish position against Kurdish independence. The Turkey-Iran relationship is further complicated by Turkey’s past role as a mediator between Iran and the West — can Turkey continue to be impartial in this type of role despite ongoing tensions?

Others, like author Stephen Kinzer, have said that Turkey and Iran aren’t that different: they’re two of the most functional democracies in the Middle East. Over time, both have moved away from secularism and toward Political Islam, either democratically or through forced regime changes. He argues in his book, Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future, that stronger ties between the US and Iran and Turkey, including a healthier relationship between the two of them, will lead to greater stability in the region and will be a positive strategic choice for the future of local and international interests.

So, how does the coup attempt play into this? The more secular model for Turkey pushed by the propagators of the coup might have had a radically different foreign policy from the Neo-Ottoman and Islamist orientation of the past decade. But a continuation of the authoritarian path chosen by Erdoğan may be anything but good for stability in the region. Iran’s borders with Turkey shut down during the coup and are yet to reopen. Since Friday, the government has arrested over 9,000 people, including nearly 3,000 military members, judges, students, and politicians; over 8,000 government officials have been suspended, in addition to over 35,000 teachers and 1,500 university rectors. The slippery slope toward one-man rule becomes steeper with every infringement on individual rights propagated by the ruling AKP under Erdoğan’s leadership. Will Turkey maintain its secularism, or will it become another semi-democratic Islamic republic à la Iran? Perhaps Iran’s condemnation of the coup signals an olive branch — according to IranWire, Iranian military and intelligence officials closely monitored the situation in Turkey, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif communicated with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşloğlu throughout the night.

Last Monday’s New York Times editorial with the mysterious Iranian flag photograph put it well: “One can hope that this desperate uprising will prompt him to reach out to his opponents, but Mr. Erdoğan’s pattern points in the opposite direction. A more likely scenario is that the upheaval and lingering tensions will compromise Turkey’s democracy and its ability to be a stabilizing influence in NATO and the region.” But what is the story behind the flag mix-up? Any proud Persian will tell you that they were never conquered by the Ottomans, and Anatolia hasn’t had a Persian ruler in centuries. Was it simply an honest mistake, a nod at political dynamics, or a sign of hope for further reconciliation and friendship between the two nations?

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