Turkey-Iran relations: historical backgrounds and Pan-Turkism revival

Iran-Turkey relations: Tehran's Consulate in Istanbul
The Consulate of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Istanbul, Turkey (Credits: SpecialEurasia)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 33 Issue 5
Authors: Silvia Boltuc

Turkey-Iran relations have always been discontinuous, characterised by cooperation on the diplomatic level, alternating with opposite geopolitical needs and foreign strategies. Such competition can be seen in the Caucasus, where Turkey has openly supported Azerbaijan in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh against Armenia, in the Middle East, where Syria and Iraq have become a battleground of conflicting interests, and finally in the energy field, as both countries are striving to establish itself as the region’s leading transit hub for energy supplies.

Over the centuries, an incessant confrontation between the Persian and the Turkish-Ottoman Empires took place, with some rare exceptions in modern times. To give some brief examples of such a confrontation it is possible to cite some major historical events. In 1514, Selim I imposed an economic land and sea blockade on the Iranian silk trade and persuaded leading Sunni religious leaders (muftis) to issue declarations of holy war (fatwas) against his Shi’ite opponents, condemning them as heretics. This set the stage for a permanent and bitter Sunni-Shi’ite divide between the Ottoman Empire and Persia. During his march through Ottoman territory and into Iran, Selim massacred up to forty thousand of his own empire’s Shi’ite subjects.

After the Ottoman rulers took over the Islamic caliphate, ironically, given their long-running conflict with Iran, the Ottomans used Persian as the language of international diplomacy, emulating the Arabs, Seljuks, Mamluks, and Mongols whom they had supplanted, and therefore incorporated into the Turkish customs and traditions Persian elements.

Despite the historical legacy of Ottoman-Safavid antagonism or the contrast between the two opposing Islamic confessions, the Shiite and the Sunni, it is reasonable to think that the competition today sinks more simply into real politik and therefore into the geopolitical needs of Ankara and Tehran.

Ankara’s renewed interest in the Eurasian area after repeated failures to access the European Community has prompted Turkey to pursue a more incisive regional role in creating a Turkish bloc. This bloc would unite the Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia with Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan with Turkey through the appropriation of the Armenian region of Syunik, called by Baku ‘the Zangezur corridor’.

Such an outcome, would also favour the European Union, struggling with the need of alternative supply routes for the gas coming from central Asia after cutting imports from Russia. The need of energy supply from Azerbaijan might be considered the main reason behind the decision Brussels took not to impose sanctions on Baku despite the humanitarian tragedy resulting from the blockade of the Lachin Corridor and the attack on Armenian sovereign territory in September 2022.

Turkish-Azerbaijani plan to create a Turkish bloc involves making territorial claims on regions ruled by Georgia and Iran. As this report aims to deepen the dynamics between Turkey and Iran, it is vital to retrace some events that characterised the Turkish-Iranian relations and analyse one of the current Turkish-Azeri strategy to destabilise the Islamic Republic of Iran from the inside.

Historical background of Turkey-Iran relations

In 1979 the Iranian Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini, one of the most significant events of the twentieth century, transformed the country considered until then the most stable in the region. The shock wave of the Revolution in the Eurasian geopolitical dynamics was considerable: in the first place the United States lost a strategic ally in the Gulf.

These are turbulent years in Turkey too. The 1961 Constitution recognised an autonomous function for the military within the Senate, giving way to a form of government ‘protected’ by the army. The constitutional legacy of the document elaborated by the Istanbul Commission is the assurance of controversial forms of protection of the principles of Kemalism and, in particular, of secularism.

The early 1970s in Turkey are those of the terrorist guerrillas and the movements that are formed in the camps of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Jordan; these are also the years of the resurgence of Kurdish separatism.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran was followed by a generalised concern by neighbouring countries about the risk of its driving principles being exported, investing also secular or Sunni governments. The ideological friction between the Iranian Shiite Islamic Republic and the secular and Kemalist state in Turkey should be framed within this context, even if in the early years of the Pahlavi dynasty there had been a sort of continuity in the government models of the two states.

Although the staunchly secular high ranks of the Turkish military were endowed with the constitutional mandate to support the Kemalist system in the country, the end of the secularist political monopoly becomes evident not only with the growing influence of religious parties, but even more with the rise of Erbakan and the Welfare Party he founded in 1983 and his closeness to Iran that is still much discussed today.

After his appointment as Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan chose Iran as his first destination for a visit abroad. It should be emphasised that while the closeness between the two states assumed at the time an ideological connotation which subsequently experienced yet another abrupt interruption due to internal changes in Turkey, the second-generation Islamists have framed their relations with Iran around more pragmatic and less contentious issues. Erdogan himself has continued to strengthen ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran with energy supply contracts from Tehran that would have supported Turkey’s growing economy.

Turkey’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO) and the deployment of U.S. military bases on its soil has further distanced Ankara and Tehran. Turkey’s close cooperation with the Western bloc, albeit with a controversial independence of Ankara’s regional policies, and the Israel-Azerbaijan-Turkey axis in the South Caucasus are among the greatest threats to the internal security of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Tensions between the two countries were further exacerbated when Ankara agreed to place a NATO missile defence shield in eastern Anatolia that was being sold by the United States as a deterrent to Iran’s burgeoning missile capability.

If previously Turkey had shown to be more focused on Europe and the West and did not represent a consistent threat to Iran, with the renewed interest in Western Asia and North Africa, Ankara is once again a geopolitical player in strong competition with Tehran’s interests.

Competition over the Middle East

Iraq and Syria have become the major theatres in which the Turkish-Iranian competition has developed. In 1978 Abdullah Öcalan founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which aimed at the independence of a Kurdish state in Southeastern Turkey. During Prime Minister Erdogan’s 2004 visit to Tehran, Turkey and Iran signed a security cooperation agreement branding the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

Indeed, Iran also had security problems in areas with Kurds and PKK-linked groups attacking Iranian officials. This agreement marked an initial cooperation on Kurdish separatism and the defence of their respective borders, cooperation which to date would seem to have collapsed under the weight of competing interests between Ankara and Tehran.

Syria and the outbreak of riots in 2011 were a watershed in relations between the two states. Already in 1998, Turkey threatened to invade Syria for supporting the PKK. In fact, the PKK leader and training camps were hosted by Damascus.

Notably, ideological factors played a significant role in the factions on the ground. Turkey allied with the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to oppose the government of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Shiite Iran supported the leadership of Damascus along with Russia. Support to Tehran of Hafez al-Assad during Iran-Iraq war, common opposition to Israel and support to Hezbollah in Lebanon created a connection between Iran and Syria.

Erdogan’s ambiguous positions regarding Israel could pose a threat to the Iranian leadership. While on the one hand the Turkish president has repeatedly been openly critical of Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip accusing Tel Aviv of state terrorism, recently, also thanks to the dynamics in the Caucasus, Israel and Turkey have experienced closeness which is dangerous for Iran.

Furthermore, the progressive loss of territory by the Islamic State led to a vacuum of power in both Syria and Iraq along the southeastern border of Turkey causing a clash between Tehran and Ankara over who should fill this vacuum. Turkey accused Iran of pursuing a sectarian agenda and destabilising the Middle East; Erdogan said Tehran was trying to divide Iraq and Syria using “Persian nationalism,” while Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu criticised what he called Iran’s “sectarian policy” aimed at undermining Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Lastly, the Kurdish question does not seem to bring the countries together as it used to. Tehran is facing internal protests with the Kurdish minority at the forefront supported by a rearguard in Iraqi Kurdistan. Ankara is conducting controversial ‘demographic’ policies alongside the more notorious military incursions into both Syria and Iraq.

While Ankara has moved from aerial bombing of alleged PKK encampments to establishing a semi-permanent military presence along Iraq’s borders, including five major bases and over 50 checkpoints (there are estimated to be between 4,000 and 10,000 Turkish soldiers in this part of Iraq) in Syria Erdogan is trying to shift the demographics in favour of Turkey. With a strategy of which the city of Afrin is the most striking example, Ankara has attempted to settle pro-Turkish Sunni Arabs to dilute the Kurdish presence, effectively transforming a once Kurdish city into a predominantly Sunni Arab pro-Turkish ally. Of the 350,000 Kurds present in Afrin after the 2018 Turkish invasion, only 150,000 remain.

The so-called “safe zones” created by Ankara, thanks to the infrastructure illegally built on the occupied land, represent a de facto growing annexation by Turkey. The ethnic/religious component is instrumentally used by Ankara and Tehran to expand their areas of influence and secure their borders. Even in 2016, when the operation to liberate Mosul began (since 2014 the city had become the headquarters of the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State in northern Iraq) Ankara reaffirmed the Sunni identity of the city, triggering a clash with the Iraqi authorities, fearing a demographic change in post-Islamic State Iraq.

Relations between Iraqi Kurdistan and Azerbaijan are also growing. Ankara encouraged Erbil and Baku to enhance ties both in the energy and security sphere. Notably, ties between Erbil and Tel Aviv have also constantly growth. Turkey’s intentions in the area are becoming clear in light of its mended relations with previously hostile Arab nations, backing for normalisation between Israel and Gulf states, and Azerbaijan’s forceful expansion against Armenia.

Ethnic minorities and identity issues as a contrast tool

Nowadays, the confrontation between Turkey/Azerbaijan and Iran, along with the military one, is exploiting also soft-power tools.

On the 12th August, 2023, the South Azerbaijan Culture Centre in Baku held a conference on “Promotion and problems of South Azerbaijan culture” sponsored by the APA GROUP, a unified media structure, which includes Azeri-Press Agency (APA) LLC, Lent.az Information Agency LLC, Vesti.az Information Agency LLC, APASport.az Information Agency LLC, APA TV internet television and Kulis.az literature website and DGTYB, the World Union of Young Turkish Writers.

GAKM 2023 event 2 August
On August 12th, 2023, at 15:00, GAKM organised the conference on “Promotion and problems of South Azerbaijani culture” (Credits: Cemal Mehmethanoğlu Facebook Page)

Moreover, the Cultural Centre of South Azerbaijan will organize the ‘Cultural Days of South Azerbaijan’ in Izmir, Turkey from the 23rd to 30th September 2023.

With ‘South Azerbaijan’ Baku and Ankara refer to the Northern region of Iran inhabited by a large Turkic-speaking community. By using this expression, they underline that such a region should be part of Azerbaijan and separate from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In a recent interview, Cemal Mehmethanoğlu, the founder of the South Azerbaijan Cultural Centre in Izmir, accused some of the 100 Azerbaijan cultural associations active in Turkey of pretending to ignore ‘South Azerbaijan’ out of fear of the mullahs operating as agents of the Iranian regime in their country. Association like the one founded by Mehmethanoğlu, according to his words, are created to legitimise and support the existence, cultural and political struggles of the Turks of ‘Southern Azerbaijan’. The centre collaborates with Barama Radio and intends to seek help from all South Azerbaijan internet TV stations.

GAKM 2023 event 1
The event organised by the to promote the so-called “Festival of the South Azerbaijani Culture” (Credits: Güney Azərbaycan kültür mərkəzi)

Using ethnic minorities and minority people to destabilise a country from within is becoming a widespread strategy. Although the Turkic-speaking peoples within Iran have, like any other minority, their own language and culture alongside the Persian one, the support that the secession of this group is receiving from various foreign countries is a violation of international law on territorial sovereignty. In this sense, a debate could be opened on what international law considers a priority: territorial sovereignty or the right to self-determination of peoples. Examples such as Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh, Abkhazia or Pakistan show a very inconsistent approach on this matter.

Even the recent NATO strategy to destabilise Russia from within against the background of the current conflict in Ukraine is exploiting conferences on Free Nations of Post-Russia, held both in the United States and in Turkey, to push these peoples towards independence requests.

Conferences like the one on the culture of ‘South Azerbaijan’ can be considered part of the soft power used by Azerbaijan and Turkey to destabilise the Northern Iranian region. Nevertheless, Ankara cannot openly support the secession of the Turkic-speaking populations of northern Iran, otherwise, in equal measure, it would have to recognise Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh to the Armenians.


Under Erdogan’s leadership, Ankara seeks to achieve the Turkish countries’ unity, pushing Pan-Turkism ideology through the Caucasus to Central Asia. Azerbaijan has been one of the primary tools of Turkish influence expansionism. Notably, the founding agreement of the Turkish Council was signed in the Nakhchivan exclave.

Ankara’s increasing influence would come at the expense of Tehran’s regional goals: the recent Azeri attempt to connect Nakhichevan through the Armenian Syunik region will serve Ankara’s goal of connecting Turkey to Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, and the central Asian republics. Although Ankara proved to have an independent regional policy, such an outcome might also be in the interest of NATO countries, which could realise a corridor connecting Central Asia to Europe. Still, the Atlantic Alliance should be cautious of Turkey’s increasing power in the region, as they have their own interests that may not align with the Western world, particularly after the U.S. withdrew. This risk is confirmed by the instrumental use of the flow of migrants or by the veto on Sweden’s accession to NATO exploited by Erdogan as a geopolitical leverage against Europe.

For Iran, Azerbaijan taking control of Syunik would mean being cut out from energy corridors and losing its land connection to Russia and Armenia, a door through which Tehran can access the Eurasian Economic Union markets.

Interests in Syria, Iraq and Central Asia and Turkey’s accession to NATO have been dividing issues between Ankara and Tehran, which instead have found a convergence of policies regarding opposition to an independent Kurdistan and support for creating an independent Palestinian state. Moreover, it can be recalled that in 2012, Turkey opposed U.S. sanctions on Iran although partially reducing oil imports and supported Iran’s nuclear program. Such stances demonstrate once again the discontinuous relations between the two powers.

The exploitation of Iranian ethnic minorities has been, throughout the last year, one of the major tools to destabilise Iran from inside. Conferences and cultural centres on the Iranian region of Azerbaijan and its Turkic-speaking population are part of this soft power strategy.

The recent ‘diplomatic crisis’ between Iran and Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani media openly recalling the need for the northern Iranian region to pass under Azerbaijan’s control based on ethnolinguistic claims are the last stage of a long-lasting confrontation. Headlines such as ‘The time has come; southern Azerbaijan must separate from Iran’ or ‘South Azerbaijan fights for independence! Azerbaijani state has a sufficient mobilisation force to protect the rights of its compatriots’ were published on media platforms affiliated with the Azeri presidential administration.

Last but not the least, it should also be underlined that, on IRGC channels, the Iranian Islamic Guard has repeatedly published videos with photomontages showing the Azerbaijani claims on Southern Armenia and Iranian Azerbaijan, showing in the subsequent sequences the war power of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a warning of Tehran’s response to a possible Azerbaijani or Turkish aggression to the borders internationally recognised.

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