“We’re waiting to see whether or not Turkey will return the favour,” said an Iranian diplomat posted at his country’s embassy in Ankara. It was clear what he meant. He wanted to remind the Turkish decision maker how Iran was one of the first governments to show its support for Turkey in the aftermath of the aborted coup in mid-July 2016. At the time, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif phoned his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu to convey the Islamic Republic’s support for the elected government and president in Turkey. Some hours later, President Hassan Rouhani called President Erdogan to congratulate him on the successful quashing of the coup attempt.
Apparently, the Iranian diplomat’s remarks were not in vain. Cavusoglu did phone Zarif to express support. But it fell short of Iranian expectations. The Iranian diplomat felt that the Ankara’s remarks were insufficient. “We had hoped for a clear and unequivocal condemnation of the insurrection against the elected system and an absolute rejection of all acts of sabotage. On the other hand, there was one good and necessary point with respect to these developments, which is the demand for an end to foreign interventions.”
Sources close to the Turkish ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said that Ankara, keen to preserve the remaining threads of its relationship with Europe, did not want to sound too out of tune with the rest of the continent on the question of Iran and, therefore, had to stress the Iranian people’s right to peaceful protest (regardless of how that right is suppressed in Turkey). Still, Ankara called on Iranian demonstrators to avoid violence and, in a gesture of support for “Turkey’s friend and sister nation, Iran”, it criticised the Trump administration that had openly declared its support for the demonstrations. Naturally, Turkish officials did not fail to stress that certain foreign agencies had an interest in escalating the situation in Iran. In addition to Washington, they were referring to Israel and certain Gulf countries.
Opinion pundits in Turkey’s pro-government press were eager to downplay the significance of the events in neighbouring Iran. The situation is not as bad as portrayed in the Western press, suggested one pro-Erdogan columnist. The demonstrations are not having an impact and are unlikely to grow and spread, he said. He pointed to the relatively few participants in the demonstrations, numbering no more than a few hundred in the capital and most in their twenties. He also held that the US’s declaration of support for the demonstrators was the sole factor that lent them some artificial impetus. The demonstrations would end as they had in 2009. It was all just a matter of time, he said.
The line of argument, above, betrays an underlying uneasiness among the Turkish ruling elite. At a time of mounting economic strains and discontent in Turkey any uprising of the poor is cause for anxiety among AKP circles in Ankara. Also, as one commentator put it, “The decision-maker in Ankara sees any signs of protest in the region as an impending threat to his rule and his authoritarian regime.”
Another commentator observed that when the cries of revolt sounded against the Shia theocratic order in neighbouring Iran, this marked a turning point in Turkish policy outlooks. “As certain as they are that the Mullahs will end the protesters, the ruling elite in Ankara is nervous for several reasons. For one, Iran teems with ethnic tensions that are just waiting for a spark to ignite them. These will cast a dark cloud over Anatolia which is strained by the same type of problem.”
For Ankara, that is the crux of the issue. Should the Iranian theocratic order crumble, the country could split into three regions, one of which would be dominated by the Kurds. That region is adjacent to Turkey’s eastern border. Iranian Kurds are reportedly among the most fervent participants in the activities opposed to Velayat-e faqih, as the Iranian governing system is called, and it is rumoured that northern Iraq — also predominantly Kurdish — is lending aid and logistical support. Such rumours were quick to trigger Ankara’s ingrained paranoia and penchant for conspiracy theories, leading one pro-Erdogan columnist to opine that the US “is trying to take control over all the border areas surrounding Turkey preparatory to fragmenting it. Towards this end, it is working to partition all neighbouring countries. It began by supporting Barzani, then it armed the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and now Iran’s turn has come.”
For the Turkish opposition parties, events in Iran have offered another opportunity to criticise their government and the all-powerful Erdogan. They see Iran as a precautionary tale warning against becoming embroiled in the crises of the Middle East, a policy pursued by the ruling AKP with disastrous consequences for Turkey. They urged their fellow Turks to echo the calls of demonstrators in Iran. If, in Tehran, demonstrators are shouting “No to Gaza and no to Lebanon”, in protest against their government’s support for Hamas and Hizbullah at the expense of the people and the economy at home, Turks should take up the calls, “No, to the Muslim Brotherhood and no to jihadist fundamentalists.” And like the Iranian people, the Turkish people should call on their government to get out of the Syrian quagmire, involvement in which has cost their country millions of dollars.
Some opposition voices described events in Iran as a violent response to their government’s attempts to expand Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. Therefore, in order to stem the spiralling domestic tensions, Tehran needed to withdraw from those countries and turn its attention to much needed political and economic development and reform at home. In like manner, Erdogan should stop pursuing his irredentist neo-Ottoman imperialist dream, for he would be mistaken to imagine that what is happening in Iran is merely a passing sandstorm.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly