Features | Politics | Central Asia

Iran’s Next Rival: Turkey

For decades Iran has tried to be an Islamic world leader. With Turkey stealing its thunder, is a clash looming between them?

If you ask an Iranian the first thing that springs to mind on hearing the name Farid Al Din Hadad Adel, he’ll likely reply (if he’s heard of him) that he’s the son of former parliament speaker Gholam Ali Hadad Adel. And if you ask what else, then that he’s the grandson of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. There’s a good chance no one will describe him as one of Iran’s best-known journalists, because, in reality, he’s not.

So when Hadad Adel junior decided to write an op-ed for the Jahan News website (affiliated with Iran’s main Intelligence agency, VAVAK) in February, in which he predicted that another war may be about to be launched against Iran, not many people took notice. Nor did they pay much attention to his view on which country is most likely to be the perpetrator:

‘If we view the option of war as a possibility, we have to pay attention to the conduit for the imposition of such a war. Where is the country which has the suitable human resources? Which country can hope for the entry of its European and American friends into the arena of war, if it enters into war against us? Will NATO be considered as the supporter of our future enemy or the Arab league? The answer is clear. Turkey is the only option for the advancement of the West’s ambitions.’

Iran’s relations with Turkey were in fact improving greatly at that time the piece was published. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had visited Tehran on October 28 the previous year, in what was a very successful visit during which he met Iran’s Supreme Leader as well as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These factors, plus Hadad Adel’s reputation as someone who received his post as head of the political council of the popular Hamshahri Javan magazine (Hamshahri for Youth) because of his family connections and not his skill set, led many to dismiss Hadad Adel’s controversial prognosis.

But actually, he may have a point.

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While some in the West are worried about a new Iran–Turkey alliance being formed, they should also be aware that despite the seemingly close relations between the two, there are people in Iran who view Turkey with suspicion. Turkey may be a friend of today, but to the Islamic Republic, it’s the rival of tomorrow.

The evidence is there for all to see. The Iranian government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on support to Hamas. However, these days, the most popular foreign flag in Gaza is that of Turkey, not Iran. There are people who are calling their children Erdogan (and no one seems to be calling their child Ahmadinejad).

Meanwhile, to some Iranians, the Turkish flotilla shouldn’t be interpreted as an attack on the Israeli siege of Gaza, but first and foremost as an assault against their influence in Gaza. Iran’s efforts to send its own flotilla are testimony to that. Iran’s main goal is not to help Palestinians who are suffering the consequences of the siege—that’s maybe a second or third consideration. Its number one goal is actually to save its standing and influence in Gaza compared with the Turks, and to improve its image in the Islamic world as the defender of the Islamic cause.

It’s the same with Syria. For years, Iran has been trying to capture the Syrian market. Iranian officials have reportedly been greasing the palms of corrupt Syrian oligarchs such as Rami Makhlouf and the Assad family with bribes. They were also investing in the country when it was considered a pariah and no one else would invest there. This was especially true after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Now the Turks have arrived, and with their Free Trade Agreement are penetrating the Syrian economy and grabbing market share from Iran. The fact that both countries share a land border (unlike with Iran) makes Turkey an even more attractive destination.

Erdogan’s recent policies suggest that he’s on the path toward making Turkey the leader of the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East—something Iran has been trying to do for the past 32 years. This reality is ultimately going to see them compete and clash over spheres of influence.

Between the two, Turkey has a bigger and more advanced economy. Its relations with the United States and EU are far better than those of Iran. So are its relations with Sunni countries as well as Shiite ones. As a consequence, improving relations with Turkey offers much better prospects and returns for many Middle Eastern countries and groups. And although they won’t break off relations with Iran, the increasing presence of Turkey is likely to come at a high cost for Tehran.

Iranians leaders will soon be looking for some kind of competitive advantage. With their economy in tatters and their country more isolated than before, becoming a nuclear armed country is likely to be the most attractive and convenient means for Iran’s Supreme Leader to gain an edge over the Turks.