Why Iran-Turkey tension won’t spiral out of control

Al Monitor| Saeid Jafari: Relations between Iran and Turkey have long displayed a sinusoidal cycle, with ups and downs. On Feb. 13, speaking at the International Peace Institute in Bahrain, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan added fuel to the fire of the regional conflict between Tehran and Ankara by saying, “There are those who are working to divide Iraq. There is a sectarian and ethnic struggle there because of the question of Persian nationalism. … We also have to prevent this in Syria and do what is necessary together with the Gulf [states], because we cannot just sit back — and will not sit back — in the face of oppression.”

A few days later, on Feb. 19, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at the Munich Security Conference, “Iran is trying to turn Syria and Iraq into two Shia states,” adding, “This has to be stopped. Security and stability in the region can only be secured then.”

Both comments were criticized by Iran. On the same day as Cavusoglu’s remarks, Iranian Foreign Minister spokesman Bahram Qassemi described the comments made by the Turkish foreign minister as “counterproductive” and said, “They should know that instability and insecurity in the region is caused by them and a few other delusional states. Those who dream about the return of empires, who have caused bloodshed and escalated tensions in the region by their unlawful and interventionist actions, they cannot play the blame game and instead need to shoulder the responsibility for their actions.” A day later, on Feb. 20, the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Turkish ambassador to object to the comments made by Cavusoglu and Erdogan.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also reacted, telling the government-run Iran daily Tasnim News on Feb. 24, “Our friends in Turkey have a short-term memory. They accuse Iran of sectarianism but don’t remember that on the night of the coup d’etat, we stayed up all night for the sake of their government, which is not even Shia. They have a short memory, and they are ungrateful to those who have been kind to them.”

However, while tensions have escalated between the two neighbors, the recent Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) summit in Pakistan presented an opportunity for both countries to reduce friction. Indeed, on March 1, President Hassan Rouhani and his Turkish counterpart met on the sidelines of the ECO meeting and emphasized the importance of expanding cooperation, especially in the economic sphere.

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