Turkey joins forces with old foe Iran to confront Iraqi Kurds
Washington - Turkey is seeking a close bond with Iran, a traditional rival of Ankara in the Middle East, to increase pressure on the Iraqi Kurds after their independence referendum in northern Iraq.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Tehran for talks with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rohani, said Turkey and Iran were united in their opposition to the Kurdish independence drive in Iraq and vowed to intensify economic cooperation with the neighbour to Turkey’s east.
The demonstration of unity came eight months after Erdogan accused Tehran of spreading “Persian nationalism” throughout the Middle East and promised to put a stop to Iranian meddling in the region.
Predominantly Sunni Turkey and Shia power Iran are heirs to empires — the Ottomans and the Persians — that were regional rivals for centuries. Today, NATO member Turkey is a close ally of the United States, while Iran sees Washington as an enemy. Both countries, however, have demonstrated a willingness to cooperate when joint interests allow it. Iran is supplying about 20% of Turkey’s oil and gas needs and the two countries are taking Qatar’s side in the dispute between the government in Doha and a group of countries led by Saudi Arabia.
Following the Kurdish vote, Ankara and Tehran showed concern that their own Kurdish minorities could become restless. Erdogan said in Tehran that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq had to face “decisive steps” after the referendum. Speaking on the return flight from Iran, the president said Turkey, Iran and the Iraqi government in Baghdad would decide jointly to “close the valve” of KRG oil exports, cutting the main source of revenue of the Iraqi Kurds.
Turkey and Iran share a perception that the KRG independence moves could be the result of outside interference. Erdogan said he saw the hand of Israel, the only country in the region that applauded the Kurdish course for independence. “A decision made while sitting at the table with Mossad cannot be legitimate,” he said, referring to the Israeli intelligence service. Khamenei said after his talks with Erdogan in Tehran that “the United States and foreign powers are untrustworthy and seek to create a new Israel in the region,” Iran’s Press TV reported.
In a further warning to the Kurds, Turkish troops and Iraqi soldiers have conducted military exercises on the Turkish-Iraqi border. Turkey’s parliament voted to allow a military intervention in Iraq. The leader of Turkey’s nationalists, Devlet Bahceli, said at least 5,000 Turkish volunteers stood ready to fight in northern Iraq in case the Turkmen there, an ethnic group with links to Turkey, were attacked by Kurds, especially in the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk.
The tough rhetoric does not necessarily mean that Turkey is ready to send troops into Kurdish cities in northern Iraq, said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who works for the American Enterprise Institute. “Erdogan’s threats don’t always match up to reality,” Rubin said via e-mail. “The point is that no military intervention is really going to matter unless Turkish troops are willing to enter Iraqi Kurdish cities and neither the Kurds nor Baghdad will allow that.”
Still, Erdogan keeps piling pressure on the Iraqi Kurds. During his visit to Tehran, the Turkish leader reminded the KRG that it was surrounded by powers opposed to a Kurdish state: Turkey in the north, Iran in the east, the central Iraqi government in the south and Syria to the west.
The Turkish-Iranian rapprochement comes at a time of increasing friction between Ankara and the West. A Turkish plan to buy a Russian missile defence system stoked concerns in Western capitals that Ankara is turning away from its NATO allies. The United States and Turkey are also at odds over Washington’s support for Syria’s Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). The arrest of a Turkish staff member of the US consulate in Istanbul on October 4 raised tensions further. The US Embassy in Ankara said it was “deeply disturbed” by the move.
Erdogan’s overtures towards Iran run counter to a strategic aim of the United States in the region following the KRG referendum. America’s prime concern is that the Kurdish vote could weaken the fight against ISIS and efforts to limit Iranian influence in the region. “We hope for a unified Iraq to annihilate ISIS and certainly a unified Iraq to push back on Iran,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has talked with representatives of the KRG and the central Iraqi government to try to ease tensions, the department said after the referendum. “We’re friends with the Kurds. We are friends with the central government of Iraq,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said before the vote. “The United States, if asked, would be willing to help facilitate a conversation between the two but I want to be clear about that: If asked.”