Western Asia in Turmoil and Rivalry between Iran and Turkey

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Last month the first part of this article examined the origins of the rivalry between Iran and Turkey in the highly volatile region of Western Asia. One cannot conclude such a survey without looking at the support Turkey receives from the West. With the increasing unrest in Yeltsin's Russia, the outlying republics of the old Soviet Union will step up their search for outside support.

In dealing with the region, Iran is being driven by two factors, but at the same time, it is being restrained by a third concern: first, it has an emotional urge to re-establish close ties with a region that, not too long ago, was part of the Iranian empire. According to an Iranian journalist, Iranian and Islamic values are so powerful in these countries that no special efforts are needed to attract the republics. They would naturally turn to Iran. At a press conference, the Iranian Foreign Minister while emphasizing the importance of non-interference principle, reiterated historic, cultural, and religious bonds with the republics in Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Responding to these sentiments, he became the first foreign minister to tour the entire region late in 1991. As stated by George Mirsky (a scholar at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow), an Iranian deputy foreign minister toned down a rivalry between Iran and Turkey in Central Asia by saying: 'Turks have nothing in the area but local idioms close to Turkish. History, civilization, culture, literature, science -- everything is Iranian'.

Second, the revival of Islam has given an impetus to Iran for playing a dynamic role in the region. In the ruins of the Soviet Union, where state, class, and party have deteriorated to this extent, few other frames of reference are left to give any identity to people. One of them is religion. Islam is the dominant religion of the people of the region. In fact, it may be considered a common denominator. As the eight years of war with Iraq showed, what kept Iran's military machine running was Islam.

Third, Iran is a mixture of various ethnic groups, although mainly from the same Indo-Iranian ethnic stock (Baluchis, Kurds, Tajiks, and Azerbaijanis share one common root with other Iranians). The fear of the rise of separatist feelings among its ethnic groups has forced Iran to mute the ethnic issues, claim no political ambitions and act as a neutral mediator between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Turkey is pursuing the goal of reinvigorating a Turkic-speaking federation that would possibly cover a land between the Balkans to a point a thousand miles inside China. Turkey envisions a 'Turkish Common Market', and is planning to facilitate free travel and business activity by introducing one single identification document in the republics. Of course, it shares common borders with none of these Turkic people, but the small territory of Nakhjevan. Turkey is counting on its seemingly more appealing secular model of government. Obsessed with the need to solidify Turkey's grip on the region, Frans Andriessen, as the EC's external affairs commissioner, once suggested that the EC should lend money to these republics to buy goods from Turkey, as a way of tying them to 'secular' Turkey rather than 'fundamentalist' Iran. However, according to a US official, it was Turkey that initially approached the EC to back major programmes in the Central Asian republics. But the Europeans were not interested. In any event, Turkey is eager to expand its influence, and the West is aware of this intense desire. Hence, both have found benefits in co-operation.

American officials are hoping that Turkey's reconciliation of modern Western culture with Islam will provide an attractive model for the republics. Ambassador Richard Armitage, Deputy to the Co-ordinator for US Assistance to the CIS, said 'Turkey is an ideal counterpoint to Iranian influence'. American officials say they might eventually help finance the Turkish efforts. …