A complex alignment in the Middle East

Iran and Turkey are key

Hamas’ October 7 attack has shaken a fragile regional order in the Middle East. Worried that the conflict could escalate into a regional war, the USA has dispatched two aircraft carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean. An additional 900 US troops have been deployed to the US. Central Command area of operations to bolster defenses.

The seemingly renewed US commitment to the Middle East has already created apprehensions in Turkey and Iran. The leadership of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) sees the USA’s unconditional support for Israel as an obstacle to its own efforts to de-escalate the situation. Iran’s ruling elites have called the USA Israel’s “indisputable accomplice” in the “massacre of Gaza’s civilians.” Beyond their rhetorical criticism of the lack of American leadership in pressuring Israel for a ceasefire, Ankara and Tehran are worried that a stronger US presence in the Middle East is detrimental to them. The war in Gaza might, depending on its longevity, help close the ranks between Turkey and Iran, given their shared objection to a US-led regional and world order. Yet there are serious limitations to a sustainable alliance.

Both Ankara and Tehran have ties with Hamas, albeit of a different nature. Unlike its Western allies, Turkey does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization. In 2018, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described it as part of the Palestinian resistance defending “the Palestinian homeland against an occupying power.” At the AKP’s “Big Palestine Rally” on Oct0ber 28, a day before the Turkish Republic’s centennial, he repeated this.

Ankara sees support for Hamas as part of its policy of defending the Palestinian cause. This policy stands on the AKP leadership’s ambitions for democracy promotion, peace mediation, and leadership of the ummah. To this end, Ankara has provided a safe haven to its members (alongside other Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups after the Arab uprisings) and supported their organizations operating in Turkey.

Yet since 2020 the Turkish government has been cautious and distanced itself from Arab Islamists, including Hamas, to help repair relations with both Arab states and Israel. Yet Gaza has revealed the limits of Turkey’s rapprochement efforts, particularly with Israel. At the same time, its relations with Hamas also have little value as its ineffective efforts to mediate hostage negotiations demonstrate.

Iran provides comprehensive political, economic, and military support to Hamas. Tehran is ostensibly trying to take advantage of the changing regional circumstances and the growing anti-Israeli sentiment in the Muslim world triggered by Israel’s disproportionate and indiscriminate assault on Gaza. In his unexpected appearance at the UN General Assembly on October 26, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian noted Iran’s readiness, along with Turkey and Qatar, to play a role in securing the release of Hamas’ civilian hostages. During the first week of the Gaza conflict, the presidents and foreign ministers of Iran and Turkey engaged in separate discussions. Amir-Abdollahian visited Turkey on November 1, meeting with President Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan.

Beyond relations with Hamas, Turkey and Iran have other overlapping interests. Both are disturbed by the American presence in Syria. Ankara sees the USA’s continued support for Kurds in northern Syria as an obstacle to its efforts to prevent Kurdish autonomy under the Democratic Union Party and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Both the USA and Turkey regard the PKK as a terrorist organization. Recently, Turkish Foreign Minister Fidan justified Ankara’s position on Hamas by referencing the US stance regarding the YPG in Syria.

For Iran, challenging the USA in Syria is part of its broader foreign policy goal of “expelling the USA from the region.” Tehran sees the American efforts to augment its forces around the Syrian-Iraqi border as a threat to its hard-won land access to Syria via Iraq. An ally of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran also believes the Syrian regime won’t be able to re-establish full control of the country if parts remain in external hands. Even though Tehran considers both the USA and Turkey as occupying forces in Syria, it feels that its disagreements with Turkey can be managed diplomatically. In fact, Tehran, along with Moscow, has been trying to mediate between Damascus and Ankara, albeit with no result.

Overall, Iranian and Turkish interests seem to be increasingly aligning, particularly in their united front against Israel’s actions toward Hamas and in opposing the resurgence of a USA-led regional order. However, their historical competition for strategic dominance in areas like Iraq and Syria, coupled with the distinct forms of revisionism that the AKP and Iranian leadership champion, suggests that any emerging alliance might remain tenuous and susceptible to strains in the mid to long term.

Interests might also be starting to align in the South Caucasus under the shadow of an ongoing Iranian-Turkish rivalry. After Iran’s perception of the Turkish and Azeri-supported Zangezur corridor as a joint Turkish-US plot against it, its warnings to Azerbaijan to avoid “any change in the geopolitics of the region,” and its concern about Israel’s military support for Azerbaijan, Turkish and Azeri officials lately appear open to replacing the Zangezur corridor with a route passing through Iran.

Thus, Tehran has embraced the so-called 3+3 initiative, a proposal by Ankara that includes Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia along with Turkey, Iran, and Russia. Tehran hosted their foreign ministers, aside from Georgia’s, on October 23. For Tehran, this initiative aims to “address regional challenges without the intervention of trans-regional and Western powers.” So far, it seems that both Turkey and Russia are aligned with Iran in shaping regional dynamics in the South Caucasus without Western interference.

Ankara and Tehran converge on their working assumptions about a changing world order. Turkey’s ruling elites believe “the West has increasingly become estranged from the rest of the world on issues including relations with China, migration and terror, and the shift in economic gravity from the West to the East.” Recent statements from top Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also suggest they perceive a decline in the USA’s global role and influence, anticipating a shift toward a non-Western global order.

Yet Ankara and Tehran do not only converge on the assumptions. Both the AKP and the Iranian leadership challenge the coherence and viability of Western institutions. Turkey does this in three ways. First, as a talking point in its foreign policy, it criticizes the structure of the United Nations Security Council. It also demands an international order that “treats every nation on an equal footing.” Second, it has emerged as a widely accepted disruptive actor within NATO. Its procrastination on advancing Sweden’s membership application is the most recent example. Finally, it engages with organizations such as the China-led SCO and forms its own multilateral arrangements, like the Astana Format, alongside Russia and Iran.

Meanwhile, Iran has consistently advocated a shift away from Western-dominated international structures. Iran sees the current international landscape as an opportunity to strengthen ties with emerging powers, like its strategic partnership with China, membership in the SCO and BRICS, and military support for Russia in the Ukraine war.

For Ankara and Tehran, the rapidly unfolding events since October 7 seem to have created an opening confirming these revisionist assumptions and efforts. The myth of Israel’s invincibility has been broken, and with it, the US government’s efforts to recalibrate the regional order by facilitating Arab-Israeli normalization have been disrupted, if not scrapped in the near term. Many in the so-called Global South are disillusioned by the unequivocal support the USA and the EU give Israel. Israel’s refusal to issue visas for UN officials to protest the UN chief’s indirect criticism only sharpens the view in Ankara and Tehran that international institutions are dysfunctional.

All of this might pave the way to closing the ranks between various revisionists. For instance, Hamas leaders visited Moscow on October 26. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri was also there and met the Hamas delegation. Meanwhile, in a speech mentioning the “guarantor formula” that Turkey has proposed, Turkish Foreign Minister Fidan stressed the importance of a “potentially unified position between China and Russia, as U.N. Security Council members” toward a peaceful resolution.

Yet there are obvious limits to the emergence of an “Axis of Revisionism.” Foremost, Turkey remains a NATO member. Amid all that is happening in Gaza, Erdoğan approved Sweden’s NATO membership and sent the bill to Parliament for ratification.

Being a member of the Western security architecture allows Turkey to be more flexible. Its NATO membership enables Ankara’s so-called balancing act between its Western allies and Russia. Unlike Iran’s revolutionary revisionism, Turkey’s revisionism is reformist.

Ankara also sees Tehran’s non-state allies as a potential threat in Syria and Iraq. As long as the war in Gaza continues, the common threat posed by the return of the USA to the Middle East might override Tehran’s and Ankara’s competing interests and prevent a potential clash. In fact, both actors want to reshape their common neighbourhood, taking advantage of the transitional state of global politics against the backdrop of the wars in Ukraine and now in Gaza. Once a new order prevails, their rivalry for regional influence will resurface.

Last, the commitment by other revisionist actors is not guaranteed. Russia benefits from supporting further cooperation between Turkey and Iran and will likely try to capitalize on it with the aim of sidelining Western actors. Yet it is unclear whether it has the capacity for this. Also, despite Russia’s controversial stance vis-à-vis Israel in the current conflict, there’s no evidence Moscow plans to totally overhaul its Israel policy. China may also find Iranian-Turkish rapprochement useful, but it too needs to accommodate the Gulf States and, therefore, acts more carefully.

Overall, Iranian and Turkish interests seem to be increasingly aligning, particularly in their united front against Israel’s actions toward Hamas and in opposing the resurgence of a USA-led regional order. However, their historical competition for strategic dominance in areas like Iraq and Syria, coupled with the distinct forms of revisionism that the AKP and Iranian leadership champion, suggests that any emerging alliance might remain tenuous and susceptible to strains in the mid to long term.

Dr Muhammad Akram Zaheer
Dr Muhammad Akram Zaheer
The writer has a PhD in Political Science and can be reached at [email protected]

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