Iran-Turkey Relations, 1979-2011: Conceptualising the Dynamics of Politics, Religion and Security in Middle-Power States

By Zasztowt, Konrad | The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs, October 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Iran-Turkey Relations, 1979-2011: Conceptualising the Dynamics of Politics, Religion and Security in Middle-Power States


Zasztowt, Konrad, The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs


SULEYMAN ELIK: Iran-Turkey Relations, 1979-2011: Conceptualising the Dynamics of Politics, Religion and Security in Middle-Power States. London-New York: Routledge, 2012, 251 pp.

Turkey's relationship with Iran in the last three decades has been the topic of several studies, but certainly Suleyman Elik's book is pioneering as a comprehensive work that includes a variety of aspects-ideology, security, the regional dimension, and energy issues. Although the two countries remain the most important regional powers in the Middle East and often have had diverse political goals in the region, there has been no military conflict between them since the Qasr-i Shirin Peace Treaty of 1639. As Elik shows in his book, this historical pattern is also valid in the modern relationship between Iran and Turkey. Perhaps, one of the important reasons for such stable relations between these two states is their similarity. According to Elik, both Turkey and Iran may be described as "first rank" Middle Eastern middle-power states, together with Egypt, whereas he defines Syria and Saudi Arabia as "second rank" middle powers.

Elik argues that not only international relevance makes Iran and Turkey similar but also the internal conflict between religious and secular models that polarises the two societies. The difference between them is only in the fact that the ruling ideology in Iran is Islamic, while in Turkey since the establishment of the republic it has been secularism. The latter, however, is much less powerful under the moderate Islamist AKP party, which has ruled since 2002.

The starting point of Elik's analysis is the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Soon after, problems in Turkish-Iranian relations appeared as a result of the extremely contradictory ideologies of both states. The theocratic nature of the Iranian government produced clashes with Turkey's secular authorities. The contrast became extraordinarily visible after the 12 September 1980 Turkish coup, which brought to power a military elite stoutly opposed to Islamic political movements. As Elik describes, revolutionary Iran's attitude towards Turkey was not passive, rather provocative. In 1986, Ayatollah Khomeini in a speech criticised the Turkish clergy for being "puppets of the Paranoiac forces" of the Turkish secular state. In 1987, during a visit to Turkey, Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi criticised Ataturk's reforms and refused to pay homage at his mausoleum. While Turkish Chief of General Staff Necip Özturun treated it as an insult, Prime Minister Turgut Özal from the liberal, centre-rightist ANAP party ignored this undiplomatic behaviour. After the death of Khomeini in 1988, Özal even instructed that the flags be lowered as a sign of respect for the deceased Iranian leader.

The 1980s were a period of a legal fight in Turkey with the Islamic practice of requiring women to wear headscarves, a battle that provoked Iranian authorities to intervene in Turkish internal affairs. In 1989, the Iranian ambassador to Turkey, Manouchehr Mottaki, even threatened economic sanctions because of Turkey's legal ban on wearing headscarves in state buildings. The "headscarf" or "turban affair" returned 10 years later when Turkish MP Merve Kavakci was withdrawn from parliament and stripped of her citizenship because she wore a headscarf at her swearing-in ceremony in the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 1999. This event provoked demonstrations of support for Kavakci in Iran, including a statement by then-Foreign Minister Kemal Kharrazi. This, in turn, brought about Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit's accusation that Iran was attempting to export its revolution to Turkey. Another moment when Turkey's neighbour influenced its internal situation was in the crisis between Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan of the Welfare Party and the Turkish General Staff. The so called postmodern coup d'état staged by the Turkish army in February 1997 was ultimately provoked by the Erbakan government's attempts to forge closer ties with Iran and to break ties with Israel. …

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