Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed on Monday that Turkey and Iran discussed joint military action against Kurdish insurgent groups, PKK and PJAK. His public remarks were regarded as a sign that a new military alliance is possible between two regional rivals locked in endless competition.
The president’s comments came about a week after a historic visit to Ankara by Iranian military chief Gen. Mohammad Baqeri. The goal of his trip, the first of its kind since 1979 Iranian Revolution, was to discuss possible cooperation in Syria and Iraq with Turkish civilian and military leaders.
Commenting on Turkish-Iranian relations, President Erdogan stated that joint actions against terrorist groups were always on the agenda of the two countries.
“This issue has been discussed between two military chiefs, and I discussed more broadly how this should be carried out,” he said.
After the address, the Turkish media claimed that Tehran and Ankara could launch an assault on the Qandil Mountains that serve as a sanctuary and headquarters for PKK. Allegedly, it would deliver a deadly blow to the group’s leadership.
But President Erdogan’s statement has more to do with wishful thinking than reality, as too many points of contention severely limit the possibility of substantial and lasting military cooperation.
Less than 24 hours into Mr. Erdogan’s announcement, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards threw cold water on the idea, revealing the magnitude of odds that defines the not-so-smooth relationship.
“We have not planned any operations outside Iran’s borders,” the Guards said in a statement published by ISNA news agency on Tuesday.
“Although Iran has no plan to take widespread operational actions outside its borders, if any terrorist group…aims to take the slightest measure to create insecurity in our borders, they will be faced with our intensive and fierce response, and their remnants will be targeted wherever they are,” the statement said, as quoted by AFP.
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, Professor in Global Thought and Comparative Philosophies, SOAS University of London and Chair of Centre for Iranian Studies, urged caution in assessing cordiality displayed by Ankara and Tehran.
“This cooperation between Turkey and Iran is tactical. It targets secessionist Kurdish movements. Despite cordial relations between the two countries, relations do not translate into a strategic alliance,” he said in an emailed statement to The Globe Post.
John Tirman, Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist at MIT Center for International Studies, told The Globe Post that there are two main reasons behind Mr. Erdogan’s address. He said any sign of an independent Kurdish state throws Turkey’s elite into “paroxysms of anxiety.”
“They believe that such a state, even if confined to present-day Iraq, would eventually stir Turkey’s 14 million Kurds to seek independence as well,” Mr. Tirman stated. That fear is “deeply rooted in Turkish politics and goes back nearly a century to the founding of the Turkish Republic.”
The second aspect that multiplies Turkey’s anxiety, according to Mr. Tirman, is the rise of the Kurdish fighters who have been effective at blunting Islamic State’s expansion in Syria and Iraq.
Ankara is concerned about the development of a cordial relationship between the U.S. and the Kurdish militia. That drove Turkey’s fears to a fever pitch, triggering a military intervention in Syria to prevent the Kurds from gaining a foothold there.
When Iranian and Russian generals visited Turkey last week, their talks mainly focused on ways to enhance trilateral cooperation to preserve ceasefire and police “de-escalation zones” in Syria, a framework announced by the three countries in May.
“While Iran (and Russia) are interested in that Turkey continue to cooperate with them with regard to the ceasefire in Syria and Turkey sees the strengthening of the PKK in recent times as a grave concern, the improvement in Turkish-Iranian relations indeed has limits,” Gallia Lindenstrauss, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, told The Globe Post.
Turkey and Iran “will find even tactical cooperation difficult to achieve since their priorities quite different,” she noted.
While Turkey is locked in an existential, intractable fight against domestic insurgent group PKK, the threat from its offshoot PJAK “is not on the top of Iranian agenda,” Ms. Lindenstrauss underscored.
There are limits to what Turkey will do to assist Iran in its support of its proxies, she noted. While Kurdistan’s independence move is a matter that disturbs both countries, Iran seems to be much more concerned about such a prospect.
Turkey’s regional rivalry with Iran goes back to the times of the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Iran, when the two regional heavyweights represented the two poles of the sectarian divide – Sunni and Shia world. In contemporary politics, their regional jostling for influence is much more rooted in geopolitics and realpolitik than simply a sectarian conflict. Nevertheless, religion still remains a relevant, salient agent that leaves a profound impact on regional politics.
Mr. Tirman said Iran has not warmed up to President Erdogan’s overtures for closer military cooperation.
“Part of this may be simple fence-mending between two regional powers that have an on-again, off-again friendship,” he said. “President Erdogan is extremely mercurial and the Iranians may be playing to his ego by voicing some tepid support on this. It is not clear that Iran would actually participate in such a military action.”
The core reason for this is the fact that the two rivals have a different set of goals and priorities. Iran, Mr. Tirman underlined, is “much more concerned about ISIS, which has directly threatened Iran, and tactically would be disinclined to weaken Kurdish fighters. They are also stretched thin by their support for Assad in Syria and the ISIS fight.”
He also echoed the point made by Ms. Lindenstrauss about the scope of threat that Iranian Kurds pose for the government in Tehran.
“Kurds in Iran have challenged the state for its suppression of minorities, but Kurds do not pose the kind of implicit threat to the central authority that their cousins in Turkey do,” Mr. Tirman noted.
When it comes to Syria, where the Turkish leader feels increasingly isolated in his “lonely machinations,” the prospect of deeper coordination with Iran appears much more limited than it may seem.