Indeed, it seemed only last year with the outbreak of the ‘Arab Spring’ that a number of a nationalist and Baathist regimes – in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia – would be ousted and replaced by Islamists inclined towards closer relations with Turkey. However, in Syria, the Assad regime refused to fall while Egypt’s experiment with a Muslim Brotherhood government has come crashing down, causing great consternation in Ankara and a rupture in relations between Turkey and the new government in Cairo.
Just as interesting are Turkey’s strained relations with Iran, another country Turkey had wanted to bring within its orbit. Indeed, in the article below, originally published here, the author (William Armstrong) suggests that anti-Iranian feeling is so strong in Turkey that there has been a surge in Sunni sectarian feeling that doesn’t bode well for Turkey with its large Alevi minority.
Not so many years ago, a strategic partnership between Turkey and Iran seemed to be developing into one of the region’s more unexpected modern developments. Turkey was vaunted as a mediator in negotiations between the West and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, and the relationship was reinforced by crucial oil and gas sales from Iran to Turkey. Those days feel rather long ago.
The two countries now find themselves at loggerheads backing opposite sides of the bloody civil war in neighboring Syria, with fears of a regional sectarian conflagration steadily turning into an apocalyptic reality. A marker of the Syrian crisis’ deleterious effect on the Turkey-Iran relationship came with the diplomatic spat that followed the deployment of NATO Patriot missiles on Turkey’s southern border earlier this year, which lead the Iranian army’s chief of staff to declare that the move could be a prelude to ‘world war.’
Less spectacular, but also very important, is Iran’s clear unease with Turkey’s delicate ongoing peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which involves the rebel group withdrawing its militants from Turkish soil to their bases in northern Iraq. Tehran is concerned that the withdrawal could result in the militants joining forces with the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), which is the PKK’s offshoot in Iran.
The schism between Turkey and Iran widened to such an extent that Patrick Cockburn recently described relations between the two as ‘poisonous’ and this is increasingly being reflected in the rising levels of anti-Iran sentiment in Turkey’s Islamist press. In addition to countless pieces targeting Iran for supporting the al-Assad regime in Syria, it has also been striking to see the AKP media include Iranians among the dark ‘outside forces’ stoking the recent Gezi Park protests, supposedly out of discomfort with Turkey’s economic success.
In the early days of the demonstrations, it was eagerly reported in all government-supporting media outlets that an “Iranian agent” had been arrested on suspicion of being a ‘provocateur’ behind protests in Ankara. It later emerged in more sceptical news organisations that the individual concerned, Shayan Shamloo, was in fact a rapper who was living in Turkey as a refugee.
Soon afterwards – in one of those truly befuddling Today’s Zaman stories – Abdullah Bozkurt wrote a column titled ‘Iran plays a subversive role in Turkey,’ in which he argued with a straight face (pardon the pun) that Iran was using the protests to infiltrate Turkey with spies disguised as LGBT people in an attempt to bring down the government:
‘Recent protests exposed, among other things, the depth of Iranian infiltration into Turkey… [During the protests] about a dozen Iranian agents who were trying to turn rallies into violent anti-government demonstrations were caught by the police… Since it is difficult to distinguish legitimate non-Muslim minority or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people from spies, Iranian intelligence often uses them as a cover to infiltrate Turkey and third countries.’However weird, Bozkurt’s column wasn’t an outlier in pointing the finger at Iran for Turkey’s problems. Indeed, Zaman and Today’s Zaman have recently been publishing a steady stream of articles and columns critical of negative Iranian influence in the region, and it’s probably also worth noting here that the Today’s Zaman editor, Bülent Kenes, wrote a book on Iran’s links to international terrorism last year.
Much of the Iran-bashing in the Turkish press goes hand in hand with pieces on Turkey’s Alevi minority.
The Alevis are an offshoot of Shiism, (distinct from the Alawites in Syria), and have historically been associated by some in Turkey as dangerous fifth columnists with divided loyalties to Iran. Indeed, that association goes back as far as Bosphorus bridge-commemorated Sultan Selim the Grim, whose decision to kill tens of thousands of Alevis was taken during a military campaign against the Persian Safavid Empire in the 16th century.
Some of the most enthusiastic and unpleasant examples negatively associating Alevis with Iran come from the extreme Islamist daily Yeni Akit. For two consecutive days in June, for example, Yeni Akit carried front page headline stories claiming that Iranian authorities had invited Alevi religious leaders across the border to visit Ayatollah Khamenei in an attempt to foment sectarian war in Turkey.
The headline of the first day’s story, ‘Iran is playing with fire’ (Iran, atesle oynuyor), was a stomach-turning play on the Turkish term for ‘flame’ (ates), in reference the fire often used in Alevi rituals.
Of course, it should be stressed that Yeni Akit is far from representative of majority sentiment in Turkey, but it probably isn’t quite as marginal as most people like to think. In fact, a few months ago Erdogan even put two of its writers – including editor-in-chief Hasan Karakaya - on his ‘Wise Men Commission,’ charged with the august task of repeating whatever he said about the ongoing Kurdish peace process.
It all adds up to a worrying picture. With the Syrian crisis having exploded into a wider geopolitical struggle splitting the region on sectarian lines, it’s increasingly clear that the growing schism between majority-Sunni Turkey and majority-Shia Iran is more than just a temporary trend.