A recent report from the United States Institute of Peace suggests Washington ought to be less concerned with a Turkish-Iranian rapprochement and more on tensions both countries will experience after the US withdrawal from Iraq. A competition between Iran and Turkey in Kurdistan is serious and threatens to undermine US efforts and initiatives in Iraq. The past several years have bore witness to a warming in Turkish-Iranian relations. The new cooperation was mostly in regards to Iran’s nuclear program, of which Turkey seemed surprisingly supportive. Most likely, the Turkish diplomacy towards Iran’s nuclear program was meant to illustrate the country’s ability to conduct independent foreign policy. However, these countries are not allies and their historical rivalry, religious ideology, and strategic visions will not allow any serious partnership. Both Turkey and Iran are proud
and historic nations. Unlike Syria, neither will tolerate being the second wheel to the other in the region. The chaos in the Arab world and the end of US dominance in Iraq has opened the flood gates for powers wishing to take advantage of regional instability. The main players Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are vying to strengthen their spheres of influence and interests regionally. Despite fears of a new Middle East alliance between Iran, Turkey, and Syria, the reigniting of the historical Turkish-Persian rivalry occurred in Iraqi Kurdistan. Riding high of his recent electoral victory, a new conflict in Iraqi Kurdistan threatens to harm Erdogans power and credibility at home and abroad, as his “zero problems foreign policy” approach in the Middle East will fall on its head. Turkish and Iranian involvement in Iraqi Kurdistan is not new. The Kurds have been used for decades as forces of subversion and conflict by all neighboring states. The Achilles heel of the Kurds, their polarized political structure, has allowed for significant influence by regional powers. There are many Kurdish groups, each fighting separate conflicts and supported by either Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Turkey. In August, both Iran and Turkey launched almost simultaneous military operations in Iraqi Kurdistan. While these operations are not new, the scope and timing is telling. Last month, both Iran and Turkey conducted intense cross-border bombardments and raids into Iraqi territory. Iran has cleared out several Iraqi Kurdish villages along its border and is now conducting a major operation to push Kurds out of the Sardasht heights. The United States Institute for Peace report highlights the renewed tensions between Ankara and Tehran in Iraq. Both powers openly state that they have competing interests in Iraq, which justify the use of power projection. Turkey is still waging its war against the PKK and Iran is still combating its historic Peshmerga foes. However, this time it is different. Iraq is much weaker than in earlier times, thus allowing for greater influence from Iran and Turkey. The situation calls for greater involvement, other than the traditional use of Kurdish Peshmerga for border raids and instability. The vacuum left from an US withdrawal needs to be filled leaving the Kurds to fend for their own. It remains to be seen if Kurdish groups can unite and offer a cohesive resistance against Iranian or Turkish initiatives. That ability, historically, of forming a united front is suspect, as the Kurdish Civil War of the 1990’s has illustrated. There are great stakes in this regional fight. Both Iran and Turkey sense an opportunity to project their power and further their visions of a future Middle East. The extent and outcome of this conflict is unknown. One thing is for sure, the age-old rivalry between the Turks and Persians is igniting Kurdistan.