Unseen Tensions: The Undercurrents of Iran-Turkey Relations in the South Caucasus

In a region of the world marked by dramatic, high-profile rivalries and conflicts—Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and the struggles for power within Syria and Yemen—the age-old rivalry between Iran and Turkey has largely gone unnoticed, even as it has sharply escalated in recent months. While the precise nature of the rivalry has changed as the two nations’ regimes have experienced some changes, and the degree to which Tehran and Ankara opposed one another in regional matters has waxed and waned, the two countries’ policies toward each other have displayed a remarkable degree of consistency—making the oldest rivalry in the Middle East one of the most relevant in the current era.

As a case in point, the power game being played between Iran and Turkey in the Caucasus today would be instantly recognizable to strategists in the Ottoman and Safavid Empires in centuries past. Turkey has allied itself with Azerbaijan, a fellow Turkic state, and helped it to gain military dominance in that region—decisively defeating Armenia and its allied Nagorno-Karabakh separatists in a six-week war in late 2020 and again in September 2023. The deepening footprint in the South Caucasus paves the way for the further expansion of Turkish influence in the Central Asian region. Turkish advances in the region have largely come at the expense of Iran, which has been constrained in Central Asia and the Caucasus by a multitude of factors—including Russia’s dominant role as a regional power broker and Tehran’s limited soft power tools, given its alienation from the West and its struggles to maintain public order at home.

With its military victory in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, Azerbaijan cemented its politico-military alliance with Turkey in 2021, sharply curtailing Iran’s role in regional affairs. In spite of this, Iran has remained a leading regional actor, with extended proxy forces across the region. For this reason, Turkey has taken a balanced approach toward Iran, maintaining relatively cordial ties and trade relations. During his official visit to Iran in 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to increase the two countries’ bilateral trade to $30 billion annually.

Strange Bedfellows

However, Turkey’s steadily rising presence in the Caucasus is not the only source of concern for Iran. The informal alliance between Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Israel, once merely a partnership of convenience, has hardened into an explicitly anti-Iran axis, with grave consequences for Tehran. Although Ankara and Tel Aviv are often seen as reluctant partners and have divergent interests in regional issues, both are strong partners with Baku. Turkey is notably more diplomatic in its engagements with Iran than Israel is; at the same time that Turkey has used great restraint  toward its eastern neighbor, Israel has allegedly conducted anti-Iran espionage from Azerbaijan’s territory, with Baku’s consent and to Iran’s considerable frustration.

Turkey’s pivot toward Central Asia and the South Caucasus became the main pillar of President Erdogan’s ambitious foreign policy strategy and was further cemented after his re-election in May 2023. After securing another term in office, Erdogan reshuffled his ministerial cabinet and took concrete steps to normalize ties with the country’s neighbors, including Iran—harkening back to the philosophy of “no problems with neighbors” that he first articulated as a reformist prime minister in the early 2000s. As such, on September 3, Hakan Fidan, the newly appointed foreign minister of Turkey, visited Iran for the first time and held a bilateral meeting with President Ebrahim Raisi, who repeatedly underlined the “grave consequences of the presence of foreign parties” (i.e. Israel) in the Caucasus region. Raisi’s statement should come as a little surprise in light of Iran’s fading regional influence, although Tehran has to some extent also benefited from Russia’s loss of influence in the Caucasus due to its self-inflicted quagmire in Ukraine.

Consequently, Fidan’s visit to Iran was more an act of goodwill gesture and an attempt to coordinate efforts regarding the diplomatic normalization with Syria, while Iran eyes new ways of reshaping the regional balance of power and limiting Ankara’s influence. Turkey’s further presence in Iran’s immediate vicinity with easy access to the Caspian Sea and Central Asian region with the bunch of Turkic states may enhance Pan-Turkism as an ideology. Notably, Azerbaijan’s triumph in the most recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict—paving the way for Baku’s total control over the long-disputed region—has clearly boosted Iran’s fears of stirring Pan-Turkic sentiments in both Azerbaijan proper and Iran’s northern provinces.

A Losing Strategy

For Iran, the security of its border with Azerbaijan is a matter of extreme security importance, and any kind of foreign military activity in this area—particularly within the participation of Turkey, a member of NATO—is perceived as a major threat. Although Iran attempted to maintain the favorable status quo in the region by intimidating Azerbaijan with massive military drills in 2021 and 2022, the impact of these efforts was undermined by Turkey’s strong commitment and vocal support to Baku throughout.

In order to address the challenge from Azerbaijan, Iran has utilized one of the few tools it has left: it has deepened its partnership with Armenia, Azerbaijan’s arch-foe, in order to break up the strong Baku-Ankara tandem. As evidenced by this month’s military clashes, this strategy appears to have failed spectacularly. Azerbaijan is far stronger than Armenia militarily, and Yerevan is increasingly unwilling to fight a losing battle at the behest of its more powerful neighbors. By conceding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Armenia has removed a major obstacle in its own relations with its eastern neighbor, allowing Baku to cast its attention elsewhere—a disastrous development for Tehran.

Ultimately, Iran’s conflict with Turkey and Azerbaijan may simply be done in by geopolitical realities in other areas. Out of fear of regional isolationism and pragmatic vision, Iran has eyed closer economic partnership with both nations, hoping that economic ties could allow it some level of influence in the Caucasus. Moreover, Iranian policymakers are no doubt pleased that the rivalry with Turkey has not transformed into an open confrontation, at least for now. Indeed, Tehran sees Ankara as a viable partner to ease its international isolationism and keep stability on its borders amid the security gap in the Caucasus left by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Therefore, Iran will likely rely on its diplomatic skills to manage its tacit rivalry with Turkey and promote its role as a “mediator” in the wake of ongoing uncertainty in the Azerbaijan-Armenia peace talks. The role of peace mediator will enable Iran to de-escalate tensions with Azerbaijan, keep Armenia close, maintain and expand economic ties to Turkey, and thus maintain enough influence in the vitally important South Caucasus region to protect its core interests.

This piece was originally published by Gulf Forum

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