MIDDLE EAST: Mercury rising: Turkey`s Iran dilemma
Iason Athanasiadis

May 23, 2006

Highly-factionalized revolutionary states like Iran have a tendency to trip over their own rhetoric. Tehran has been protesting for some time that it is a pacifist state seeking to bring stability to a troubled region. Until President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his infamous statements about Israel last November, Iran at least had a chance of convincing a suspicious international community of its case.

Then, last month, Iranian field guns in the sensitive, ethnically-mixed Kurdistan province bordering northern Iraq opened fire for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein in a salvo targeting Kurdish militant positions in the neighboring country. It marked an unprecedented escalation in the tension between the autonomous Kurdish-majority region in Iraq and its Turkish and Persian neighbors.

Kurdish rebels fighting the Iranian government have been especially active recently in mounting attacks against Iranian army posts inside the Kurdish-majority, western Iranian Kurdistan. Hundreds of Iranian soldiers and policemen have been killed in these offensives during a spike in violence beginning in 2003.

Aside from weakening Iran`s pacifist protestations, the Iranian artillery strikes took the fledgling, anti-Kurdish Turkish-Iranian alliance a step further in an already critically polarized region. The attacks came as Turkey continues an intimidating troop buildup along its common borders with Iraq, in what has become an annual event in Ankara`s long-standing fight against Iraq-based Kurdish guerrillas.

Both Iran and Turkey contain large Kurdish minorities that present a threat to the region`s two Muslim superpowers. But the cooperation against a common enemy only goes some way toward allaying the mutual suspicions that dog relations.

Earlier this year, Iran`s supply of natural gas to Turkey was inexplicably slashed by 70 percent during one of the coldest days of the year. On the same day, Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul raised the tension between the two countries by calling for greater Iranian `transparency` over Tehran`s nuclear program.

While ordinary Turks braced for shortages in the freezing weather, analysts speculated that the cut was a calculated move by Tehran aimed at warning Ankara away from greater involvement in its escalating row with the West.

Despite publicly supporting Iran`s quest for nuclear energy, Turkish officials privately speak of their fears at the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

As a key US ally, a historical adversary of Iran, a secular Muslim country and the most significant regional military partner of Iranian archrival Israel, Turkey appears increasingly concerned over how it will continue the balancing role that it has played in the region.

With tension between Iran and the West peaking, examining how Iran`s most influential neighbor will react to the unfolding crisis becomes increasingly topical.

So far, Turkey has managed to steer a remarkably uncontroversial course, which has seen it keep cordial relations with Tehran, even as it remains the only Muslim NATO member and also maintains high-profile military cooperation with Israel.

But analysts fear that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran could almost inevitably prompt an escalation as regional powers Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even Egypt move to develop a nuclear deterrent.

Turkish diplomats say that both their prime minister and his foreign policy supremo have warned their Iranian counterparts that they should solve the crisis within the context of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But they admit that they are unable to step in themselves and offer Iran incentives because Turkey has yet to become a nuclear power.

In addition, Ankara views with trepidation the intense pressure that the Bush administration has applied to its three southern neighbors: Iran, Iraq and Syria. Iran and Syria are increasingly isolated international pariahs. As for Iraq, it is a civil strife-wracked ethnic mosaic crumbling by the day along sectarian lines. Turkey most certainly does not want to see the chaos spread along its southern flank.

An Iraq descending into civil war has set in motion a perilous train of events as the country`s Kurds increasingly drift toward a unilateral declaration of independence. Even more worrying for Ankara is the unchecked spread of Iranian influence across oil-rich southern Iraq.

While a Kurdish state might prompt renewed but ultimately containable Kurdish separatist spasms in southern Turkey, the transformation of Iraq`s most economically viable part into an Iranian zone of influence would turn the Shia theocratic state into a powerful regional actor able to draw on unlimited oil receipts in furthering its anti-Western agenda in the region.

That is a terrifying prospect for Turkey`s secular political and military elite, who fear that a resurgent Islamic Republic could act as a destabilizing force for Turkish society. At a March 3 meeting in Istanbul, Turkish diplomats warned a group of leading foreign-policy columnists that the escalation of conflict in Iraq may turn the country into a `new Lebanon`.

Recently, a group of retired Turkish generals and ambassadors diagnosed the development of `theocratic nationalism` in Iran and warned of the danger that it posed to Turkey.

Even Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the head of one of the most overtly Muslim governments in the history of the Turkish republic, appears to sympathize with the concerns of the Arab world`s Sunni regimes that a rise in Iranian influence would upset the Sunni status quo in the region and threaten Ankara.

Such fears have prompted the greatest foreign policy redeployment into the region witnessed since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire prompted a retreat from Middle East politics and a westward shift.

But whether Turkish diplomacy will be enough to turn the region away from the precipice it is rapidly hurtling toward without the need for recourse in military action of some sort seems decreasingly likely. For the political heirs of Ataturk, the fight against state Islamism has finally washed up on Turkey`s southern shores.

Iason Athanasiadis has worked as a writer, photographer and television producer for the BBC, Al Jazeera, the Financial Times and Der Spiegel. He is currently based out of Tehran. Acknowledgement to bitterlemons-international.org