Matteo Legrenzi and Fred H. Lawson
Dr. Legrenzi is associate professor at the School of International Relations of Ca' Foscari University of Venice, author of The GCC and the International Relations of the Gulf (I. B. Tauris, 2011) and president of the Italian Association for Middle East Studies (SeSaMO). Dr. Lawson is professor of government at Mills College and author of Global Security Watch Syria (Praeger, 2013).
Iranian foreign policy in the 25 years after the 1978-79 revolution centered on the cultivation of strategic alignments with a wide range of radical states and revolutionary movements throughout the Middle East. Relations with this heterogeneous collection of regional partners, particularly those with Syria and the Lebanese Shii organization Party of God (Hezbollah), left the Islamic Republic vulnerable to periodic threats of entrapment and abandonment by its allies. This in turn had a direct impact on Iran's relations with regional adversaries.1
After the collapse of the Baath regime in Baghdad in March 2003, the strategic circumstances facing Iran's leaders changed in two fundamental ways. First, Iraq emerged as a potential ally of the Islamic Republic instead of an implacable foe. Second, the United States posed a more direct challenge to Tehran's position in the Gulf than ever before. These shifts transformed and aggravated the dilemmas generated by Iran's simultaneous dealings with regional allies and adversaries, not only with respect to Syria, Hezbollah and Iraq, but also as they shaped relations with Turkey and the former Soviet republics of the southern Caucasus.
LEBANON AND TURKEY, 2003-09
As Iran consolidated its economic and military ties with post-Baath Iraq during the course of 2004-05, Tehran's relations with Damascus stagnated.2 Syrian leaders did their best to prop up and reinvigorate the strategic partnership with the Islamic Republic, and the two governments announced in February 2005 that they had concluded a mutual defense pact.3 But Damascus at the same time made a concerted effort to forge commercial and security connections with Ankara, whose relations with Tehran remained lukewarm at best.4 More important, the resumption of sustained interaction between the prominent Shii educational and pilgrimage centers of southern Iraq and the Shii community of southern Lebanon undermined Syria's influence within Lebanon's Shia in general, and diminished Damascus's leverage over Hezbollah in particular.
Syria's campaign to reinvigorate strategic connections with Iran set the stage for closer relations between the Islamic Republic and radical Palestinian forces based in Lebanon, most notably the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Emboldened by Iranian overtures, these two movements joined the armed wing of Hezbollah, the Islamic Resistance Companies (IRC), in carrying out a succession of mortar and rocket attacks against northern Israel during the spring of 2006. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded by shelling villages on Lebanese territory, prompting the IRC to fire rockets into northern Israel. The escalating confrontation led IDF commanders to carry out a large-scale ground, air and naval assault against southern Lebanon that July.
Tehran responded to the 2006 Lebanese war by threatening to inflict a "crushing response" on Israel if the IDF attacked Syria. Yet the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces told reporters that the Islamic Republic would "never militarily" take part in the conflict, and Iran's foreign minister journeyed to Istanbul and Cairo in early August to discuss ways that the fighting might be brought to an end.5 Furthermore, Iranian officials did their best to distance themselves from Hezbollah and the radical Palestinian militias. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei even urged Iran's senior religious figures to refrain from issuing a formal religious ruling (fatwa) that would have made it incumbent upon Muslims to take part in the fighting.
Iranian restraint facilitated a dramatic expansion of economic and security ties to Turkey. The two countries had enjoyed uneasy relations prior to the 2006 war, due largely to Ankara's efforts to expand relations with Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Tehran's misgivings concerning Turkey's simultaneous rapprochement with Baghdad and Erbil were partially offset by the emergence of a militant Iranian Kurdish movement, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), which provided the Turkish and Islamic republics with an incentive to collaborate. In July 2004, the two governments concluded a mutual security agreement that explicitly targeted the PJAK and Ankara's long-time nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Local commanders on both flanks of the KRG subseqently coordinated their tactical operations, and the Iranian authorities frequently rounded up PKK fighters and dispatched them to Turkey for prosecution.
Relations between Iran and Turkey received a further fillip in late 2008, after Israel initiated a major military offensive against Gaza without notifying Ankara in advance. The scale of the destruction inflicted on Gaza's civilians infuriated a majority of Turkey's population and horrified high-ranking officials, setting the stage for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's highly publicized chastisement of Israeli President Shimon Peres at the January 2009 World Economic Forum. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad thanked Erdogan for his outburst, and the Turkish premier reciprocated by congratulating Ahmadinejad on his reelection to the presidency that June. Furthermore, in October 2009, Prime Minister Erdogan called Iran's ongoing and highly controversial atomic research program "an exercise in nuclear energy, an exercise with peaceful and humanitarian goals."6
TURKEY AND IRAQ, 2009-11
In 2009-10, there was a steady improvement in Iran's relations with the Turkish Republic, as well as a further deepening of ties between Syria and Turkey. In the fall of 2009, Tehran and Ankara agreed to work together to exploit the Iranian oilfields of South Pars, set up an industrial free-zone along their common border, and put regulations in place enabling banks based in one country to operate in the other. Moreover, Turkish officials in 2010 revised the annual National Security Policy Paper so as to remove the Islamic Republic from the list of outstanding external dangers.
Tighter alignment between Tehran and Ankara accompanied a marked escalation of tensions between the KRG and the central administration in Baghdad. The contest reflected long-standing conflicts of interest regarding the oil-producing region around the northern city of Kirkuk, but it also grew out of a five-way struggle for power inside the KRG among the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a collection of Sunni Islamist movements, Shii radicals affiliated with Muqtada al-Sadr and the predominantly Shii State of Law Coalition headed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Faced with rising threats to their co-predominance in local affairs, the KDP and PUK adopted increasingly belligerent postures toward the Iraqi authorities, which culminated in a succession of armed clashes along the KRG-Iraq border.
Turbulence inside the KRG tempted both Iran and Turkey to engage in unprecedented levels of intervention in Iraq's internal affairs. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) carried out a massive artillery and ground attack against PJAK bases in northeastern Iraq in June 2010 and then constructed a permanent outpost on Iraqi territory adjacent to the border town of Perdunaz. Turkey's ambassador to Iraq at the same time set out to dampen the growing polarization of Iraqi politics by trying to block the reappointment of Prime Minister al-Maliki following the March 2010 parliamentary elections. Turkish officials also sponsored a number of Sunni political movements in Iraq's northwestern provinces, including the so-called al-Hadba Bloc, whose loyalists played a crucial role in weakening the electoral strength of the KDP and PUK.
Popular protests against the joint dominion of the KDP and PUK erupted in Sulaimaniyyah in late January 2011, then spread to other cities in the KRG over the next two months. The KDP's militia responded by shooting into the crowds, and when it became clear that the security forces could not contain the demonstrations, the KRG issued a directive that banned all forms of public protest. The outbreak of widespread disorder in the Kurdish region prompted the IRGC to resume attacks on villages suspected of harboring PJAK fighters. In July 2011, Iranian commanders deployed some 5,000 troops along the border, and a month after that Turkey's armed forces carried out large-scale operations against suspected PKK positions inside KRG territory as well.
TURKEY, IRAQ AND THE CAUCASUS, 2011-13
Anti-regime demonstrations that broke out in Syria in February 2011 at first led Iran, Turkey and Iraq to rally behind the Baath regime led by President Bashar al-Assad. Iranian officials pledged to boost bilateral trade and investment as a way to help the Syrian government deal with festering popular discontent, while Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan welcomed the nominal reform measures that were introduced by the Baath leadership in March and April 2011 as significant steps in the right direction. When the confrontation between the opponents and supporters of the Baath order degenerated into indiscriminate violence, however, Ankara abruptly pulled away from the president and his allies. The return of Turkish antagonism toward Damascus quickly spilled over into renewed mistrust of the Islamic Republic, whose leaders continued to provide material and moral support to the Baath regime.7
By late summer 2011, Iran faced a burgeoning domestic challenge as well. Large numbers of Azeris took to the streets of the northern metropolis of Tabriz that August, ostensibly to demand the restoration of the badly depleted waters of Lake Urmia. The demonstrators were met by riot police and security forces, which used tear gas and gunfire to disperse the crowd. Spiraling tensions between Azeri activists and the authorities in Tehran cast a pall over the Islamic Republic's already shaky relations with Azerbaijan and opened the door to enhanced ties between Iran and Armenia. Following a March 2013 congress of Azeri nationalists, whose agenda included a discussion of the prospects of independence for the Iranian provinces of West and East Azerbaijan, Baku moved closer to Israel and reaffirmed its ties to Turkey. Armenia, by contrast, opened its doors to Christians fleeing the civil war in Syria and encouraged the refugees to take up residence on lands that had long been claimed by Azerbaijan. Consequently, the smoldering territorial dispute between Yerevan and Baku reignited.
As the summer of 2013 went by, the pronounced sectarianization of Syria's civil war posed a growing threat that the conflict would percolate into Turkey and Iraq. The likelihood of political polarization between Sunnis and Alevis inside Turkey jumped dramatically after anti-government protests broke out across central and southern Anatolia in June. Subsequent battles among Kurdish forces, radical Islamist formations and the Free Syrian Army in northern Syria prompted cadres of the PKK to abandon the tenuous ceasefire the organization had worked out with Turkish officials. The resurgence of PKK militance prompted Ankara to reconsider its policy of backing radical Islamist formations in Syria, most notably the Assistance Front for the People of Syria. The resulting reduction of external support for the Assistance Front enabled Kurdish fighters to expel the Front from three towns along the border with Turkey at the end of July.
Prospects for near-term stability looked considerably bleaker along the Syrian-Iraqi frontier. A pitched battle between Syrian troops and Free Syrian Army units at the border town of Yaarabiyyah in March 2013 eventuated in the resuscitation of the radical Islamist movement called the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). Over the following weeks, ISI fighters joined the Assistance Front to drive Free Syrian Army units out of several key border stations. These tactical successes prompted the leader of the ISI to announce in early April that the two formations were merging to form the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Despite orders from al-Qaeda Central to abandon the merger, the ISIL leadership insisted that the amalgamation was permanent and that the organization would henceforth attack Shiis, Alawis and "the Party of Satan" (the group's code name for Hezbollah) by whatever means possible.
Fierce fighting raged across northern and eastern Syria throughout the fall of 2013, pitting ISIL against both Kurdish forces and a handful of rival Islamist formations, including components of the Assistance Front that had refused to acquiesce in the merger with the ISI. The primary Kurdish militia, the Popular Protection Units (YPG), managed by late October to dislodge ISIL from extensive areas of al-Hasakah province, as well as from Yaarabiyyah. This development left Turkey facing not only an expanding radical Islamist current but also an increasingly entrenched Kurdish nationalist presence on the other side of its southern boundary. In a bid to block the continued expansion of the two movements, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu traveled to Baghdad in November and made it a point to consult both Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr in an overture to Iraq's heterogeneous Shii power structure.
Ankara at the same time accelerated its rapprochement with the Kurdistan Regional Government. KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani arrived in the Turkish capital in early November 2013 and initialed a package of agreements that provided for the construction of a massive oil and gas pipeline network that would connect the oil-producing region of northern Iraq to several Turkish ports. The agreement elicited a burst of anger from officials in Baghdad, which Ankara did its best to calm while giving no hint that it might abandon or modify the pipeline project.
Meanwhile, Turkey strengthened its ties to Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In October 2013, the government in Kabul granted the Turkish Petroleum Company the right to explore and develop a number of prospective oilfields inside Afghanistan. Ankara's growing presence in the countries along Iran's northern borders set off alarm bells in Tehran, and Iranian officials demonstrated their irritation by obstructing the flow of goods along major transport routes throughout the area. More disturbing for the Islamic Republic, Turkey's overtures to its northern neighbors coincided with a redoubling of Israeli efforts to cultivate links to Turkmenistan, which further stoked Tehran's fears that it was being encircled by actual and potential adversaries.8
Turkey's simultaneous initiatives toward Iraq, the KRG and the southern Caucasus, in conjunction with the lightning advance of ISIL across northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq during the late winter and spring of 2014, left Iran facing three overlapping alliance dilemmas. On the one hand, Tehran could have taken more assertive steps to protect the central government in Baghdad from the coalition of forces that demanded fundamental reforms to the discriminatory structures and practices put in place by Prime Minister al-Maliki. On the other, it could have distanced itself from al-Maliki and the State of Law Coalition and gambled that the installation of a new political leadership would suck the air out of the opposition.
Tehran seems to have ended up adopting the latter course of action. In the parliamentary elections of April 2014, Iranian officials pointedly refrained from expressing support for the prime minister. On the day of the balloting, the foreign ministry issued a carefully worded statement calling on Iraqi voters to do what was required to "put an end to the wave of terror" washing across the country.9
At the same time, the Islamic Republic faced the dilemma of whether to back the central administration in Baghdad or strengthen its ties to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Standing firm with the Iraqi authorities offered the prospect of preserving a more or less unified polity along Iran's western border, at a time when separatist movements of Azeris and Baluchis had once again mobilized inside Iran itself. Supporting Baghdad also put Tehran in a position to gain a strategic advantage vis-à-vis Ankara, which had opted unambiguously for closer relations with the KRG. Given the precarious situation in Iraq's northern provinces during the spring of 2014, however, any hesitation to provide assistance to the KRG greatly increased the chances that key districts would fall into the hands of ISIL, now rechristened the Islamic State. The unanticipated fall of Mosul to ISIL fighters substantially strengthened the organization. Each city and town that succumbed to the Islamist radicals and their former Baathist allies thereafter made it more difficult for the Kurdish militias and Iraqi armed forces to prevail on the battlefield.
Here it appears that officials in Tehran attempted to pursue both contradictory courses of action at once. The influential IRGC representative in Baghdad, General Qassem Soleimani, formally but discreetly offered to reinforce two pro-Iranian militias — the Bands of the People of Truth (Asaib Ahl al-Haqq) and the Companies of the Supporters of the Party of God (Kataib Ansar Hizbullah) — with IRGC personnel for the defense of Baghdad and the southern pilgrimage cities of Karbala and Najaf.10 Press reports claimed that some 2,000 IRGC troops crossed into central Iraq in mid-June.11 Yet later accounts affirm that armaments and military advisers were also dispatched to the KRG, in order to ensure that Kurdish forces could repel ISIL's initial assault.12 In late August 2014, the Iranian government inched closer to the KRG, and Soleimani was quietly reassigned to a new post in Damascus.13
Finally, Iran confronted a choice between restoring amicable relations with Turkey and refurbishing its tarnished links to Syria. Prime Minister Erdogan tried to push Tehran into deciding in favor of the former by scurrying to the Iranian capital in January 2014. The authorities in Ankara had already sweetened the pot by allocating some $20 billion worth of gold bullion to assist the Islamic Republic in its efforts to contravene the sanctions on trade that had been imposed by the UN Security Council.14 Additional bilateral economic agreements were signed during Erdogan's visit.15
Nevertheless, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani refused to jettison the Baath regime in Damascus, thereby forcing the Turkish prime minister to focus exclusively on the Islamist radicals. "The terrorist groups that are operating [in Syria] under the cover of Islam are in no way related to Islam," Erdogan told reporters. "We will widen our cooperation shoulder-to-shoulder with Iran in combating [the] terrorist groups." Rouhani echoed Erdogan's statement and underscored the two governments' "common views about terrorism and extremism."16 Yet the two leaderships continued to disagree on how to resolve the underlying problem. Ankara insisted that the threat from the radical Islamists would dissipate as soon as Assad relinquished power, while Tehran pointed to the long-term sources of Sunni militance throughout the Middle East. President Rouhani in his June 2014 visit to Turkey left things unresolved, by concentrating on how to increase mutual trade and investment rather than grappling with the sticky matter of what to do about the civil war raging in Syria.17
1 See Fred H. Lawson, "Syria's Relations with Iran: Managing the Dilemmas of Alliance," Middle East Journal 61 (Winter 2007).
2 This discussion draws on Fred H. Lawson, Implications of the 2011-13 Syrian Uprising for the Middle Eastern Regional Security Complex, Occasional Paper No. 14, Center for International and Regional Studies, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, 2014.
3 Lawson, "Syria's Relations with Iran," 40-41.
4 See Suleyman Elik, Iran-Turkey Relations 1979-2011 (Routledge, 2012).
5 Lawson, "Syria's Relations with Iran," 45-46.
6 Lawson, Implications of the 2011-13 Syrian Uprising, 9.
7 Henri J. Barkey, "Turkish-Iranian Competition after the Arab Spring," Survival 54 (December 2012-January 2013).
8 See Michael B. Bishku, "The Relations of the Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan with Israel," Middle Eastern Studies 48 (November 2012).
9 Ali Hashem, "Iran Not Just Focused on Maliki in Iraqi Elections," al-monitor.com, May 2, 2014.
10 Golnaz Esfandaiari, "Iran Enters the Fray in Iraq," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 13, 2014.
11 Martin Chulov, "Iran Sends Troops into Iraq to Fight against ISIS Militants," Guardian, June 14, 2014.
12 Arash Karami, "Iran Interior Minister Says Advisers Sent to Iraqi Kurdistan," al-monitor.com, August 26, 2014.
13 Tariq Alhomayed, "Iran's Foreign Policy Is Shifting," al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 29, 2014.
14 Ali Hashem, "Turkey Shifts toward Iran on Syria," al-monitor.com, January 17, 2014.
15 "Turkey-Iran Relations: Cooperation and Rivalry," Milliyet, 31 January 2014 (al-monitor.com).
16 Fehim Tastekin, "Turkey, Iran Seek Workaround on Syria," al-monitor.com, February 2, 2014.
17 Semih Idiz, "Will Turkey and Iran Find Common Ground in Iraq?" al-monitor.com, June 13, 2014.