While Iran has virtually no close ties with the West, and certainly does not speak with the White House, Turkey is a NATO member and President Erdogan speaks from time to time with President Trump. Other than that, the resemblance between Erdogan’s Turkey in past few months and Iran is strikingly odd. Is Iran serving as Turkey’s role model or do they happen to have taken similar courses of action?
(April 1, 2020 / JNS)
Looking at the years prior to the 1970’s revolution, The United States has helped Iran develop government institutions and westernize the country culture. One such westernization was the White Revolution, an aggressive campaign of social and economic Westernization that included redistribution of land, increased rights for women and attempts to improve literacy and health in rural areas. Following the 1979 revolution, Iran has become more hostile toward the West and turned its back to the liberal reforms. In Turkey’s case, while they are still a member of NATO, Erdogan has abandoned Ataturk’s vision of a secular country to become more religious. Will Erdogan’s next move be a disengagement form the West? Only time will tell but the acquisition of the S-400 system from Russia suggests that Turkey is heading in that direction.
Much like Iran, Turkey sees itself as a regional power. Both countries have a rich history of regional dominance; Iran trying to recreate the Persian Empire from centuries ago and Turkey looking back at the Ottoman Empire form decades ago. Iran has spread it’s tentacle across the region by creating proxies and militias in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Turkey has supported Hamas in Gaza, has created proxies in Syria, and sent fighters to Libya.
As Iran and Turkey grow their influence in the region so too does their opposition grow. There have already been clashes between Iran and their rival – Saudi Arabia. According to some reports, Iran was behind the drone attack on Saudi Aramco’s facilities in September 2019. At the same time, Turkey has also launched an aggressive campaign in the Mediterranean Sea. They have signed a maritime border deal with Libya in November 2019 to demarcate their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and disregard Greek and Egyptian maritime borders (see picture below). According to the deal, unrecognized by any other country, a portion of Egypt’s EEZ has been recognized by Turkey as Libyan. Turkey has also been trying to hinder any energy activity or project development in the sea. So far Egypt, Turkey’s regional rival, has yet to react but this route that Turkey is headed down may lead to some sort of escalation between the two countries.
The maritime agreement between Turkey and Libya has granted Turkey the power over a popular shipping route, similar to the Straits of Hormuz that is partially controlled by Iran. Much of the maritime trade route between the Far East and the Gulf to Western Europe and North America goes though the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. While the Canal is controlled by Egypt, the Turkish-Libyan deal will allow Turkey to block any ship in the Eastern Mediterranean, should it wish to. At the moment, Turkey has already sent a number of warship to Libyan waters and has a record of activating its military navy to “escort” civilian ships out of areas in the Mediterranean. The Turkish blockade of the Italian drillship in Cyprus in 2017 and the deporting of the Israeli research ship out of Cypriot water in 2019 have gone with no reaction. It is not out unrealistic to imagine Turkey following Iranian footsteps in the Straits of Hormuz and block the Mediterranean Sea should a country decide to act against it.
Last, the relationship with Europe. In regards to the JCPOA, Iran has been trying to eat the cake and keep it. On one hand it signs a deal with the countries and doesn’t adhere to it, on the other hand Iran continuously threatens Europe that it will leave the JCPOA if it doesn’t get its way. Similarly, Turkey has an open request to join the European Union, albeit the negotiations are stalled, at the same time Turkey threatens Europe to flood the continent with refugees. In essence, Iran and Turkey are trying to hold the EU hostage. In the Iranian case it has driven a wedge between Europe and the United States, but in the Turkish case there is still hope for US-EU cooperation. It is not too late to form a coalition of countries to work with Turkey and steer them off the path of becoming Iran 2.0. Despite Turkey facing away from the West, the United States and Europe must come up with a way to address Turkish concerns and desire of becoming a regional superpower without posing a threat to the Middle East allies.
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