Turkey should be the country that knows Iran, which has been occupying the world’s agenda for years, the most. Yet, this is not true. Turkey’s knowledge on Iran and particularly its analyses that will shape Turkish-Iranian relations is next to nothing. An academic who speaks Turkish in Iran, which I visited a short while ago, explained the situation as: When listening to what is said about Iran on Turkish television, “I wonder whether there is an Iran other than the place I live.” This ironic narration actually reflects the truth. Iran studies in Turkey have long been limited to inadequate Farsi education. Lately, other than the İRAM (Center for Iranian Studies) established in Ankara, we have certain social sciences faculties that conduct studies on Iran, and prepare theses generally based on English sources.
So, what is the situation in Iran?
They want to understand Turkey with a greater desire than with which we want to understand them. There is both a compulsory aspect and realpolitik reasons for this, which they do not admit. Without any speculation about population, the significant Turkish presence in Iran obliges them to this. Even though there are fractions that are recently trying to deny Iranian Turks, a religious leader laid claim to the subject to avoid offending them and made it up to Turks. To some extent, this matter is Iran’s weak spot. Meanwhile, despite the Turks of Iran being disturbed by some of the cultural policies applied toward them, there is no doubt about their loyalty to Iran and that they are equal partners of the country. However, it is also a fact that the regime has developed a sensitivity regarding the administration of Iranian territory by Turkish dynasties for centuries and the legacy left behind, and that it has a desire to get wipe out the remaining cultural traces. Thus, the 1979 revolution is more a Persian revolution rather than an Islamic one – as it was promoted in regards to abroad. Persian nationalism, intertwined with Imamate Shiism, including the false nationalism produced by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, has never been as obvious in any period of history as today.
Resul Jafarian, an exceptionally intellectual researcher from Tehran University’s former teaching staff (he is still the Tehran University Library chair), who is also one of the mullahs of Qom, recently published a very interesting book. The book titled, “Tarih-i Teşeyyu-i Der Iran” (History of Shiism in Iran), is an effort to prove how intertwined Shiism and being Persian is. The book aims to reject the theory that Iranians became Shiite after the Safavids. It displays a stance especially against the “pro-Safavid sentiment” recently directed toward them by the Arabs. Jafarian, who says that Shiism was spread in Iran in the early periods of Islam through the Huzaa tribe which stood beside Ali, one of the four great caliphs, through Iraq to Khorasan, and also via the Beni Qays tribe from Bahrain, which is also claimed to be Persian land, makes history on one hand, while on the other he makes great contributions to Persian nationalism. As a matter of fact, this situation has dominance over almost the entire official discourse.
What are Iranians curious about?
The panel I joined at the Middle East and Strategic Researches Center, where reports that inform the Iranian Foreign Ministry about Turkey and reports that analyze especially Turkey’s politics in the Astana process are prepared, saw great interest. The panel was moderated by the center’s president, Esadullah et-Tahari. The other speaker was Rıza Mirabyan, a former diplomat and expert on the Gulf, who was described by the session moderator as a hero as he was likely active in the founding of Hezbollah.
Tahari made obvious that he follows Turkey closely through both his comments and the questions he asked. Claiming that as Turkey-Iran relations which are following an unfamiliar course cannot be understood with academic questions alone, he questioned how far it can really go by asking, “What is Turkey doing in Afrin right now?” There is nothing surprising here. Iran was against both the Euphrates Shield and the Olive Branch operations. But the real issue, it seems, is that Iran is scared of Turkey’s influence increasing in the Arab geography and especially from the normalization of relations. A greater fear is the developments that may take place in Iraq. Because in either situation, it is afraid it will lose its own area of influence. Because Iran appearing as an actor in both regions gives it authority in the international domain. I considered it once more. If it were not for Iraq and Syria, how serious would an Iran with a population of 80 million, which was dismissed from the world since 1979, be taken?
The Gulf, Iran and Turkey
Of course, there are also Gulf policies. Mirabyan is a good expert on the Gulf and follows developments closely. However, there is a Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi’s crown prince, obsession there. According to him, Iran essentially wants to pursue neighborhood politics in the Gulf. Its aim is to continue this with tolerance policies. As a matter of fact, it is believed that this is how they saved Bahrain from Saudi occupation. However, as the Shiite-Sunni conflict has become open to the use of others (referring to the U.S. and Israel), normalization is impossible, he says. Mirabyan, who finds Mohammed bin Salman’s 2030 project valid and clever and says this saved Saudi Arabia from collapsing, states that acting together with the U.S. has pushed Mohammed bin Salman into Israel’s lap.
Iran, which sees the improvement of Saudi-Israeli relations as a serious security threat, is curious about the views of Turkey, which has assumed an active role in Qatar, on this matter. Of course, the reason behind this curiosity are Turkey-Israel and Turkey-U.S. relations. He says this openly too; he asks, how do you continue your alliance with the U.S. when in conflict with them, and your relations with Israel while defending Palestine’s interests? Even though we say that Turkey is able to continue its relations with Iran and Russia under similar conditions, it is not being perceived as very convincing. Because, while Iran is carrying out business with the “exaggerated discourse” policy it developed since 1979, it is clear that it also lost the “notion of flexibility” in foreign policy. Despite returning to this notion with the Astana process, it is experiencing great difficulty.
Essentially, the comments made and questions asked by the academics, students and journalists in the hall were as important and worthy of discussing as those by Tahari and Mirabyan. But that would be too much for the limits of this article. However, it is possible to say this much: Iran claims that it is pursuing a state policy by acting with realpolitik reasons. This is partially correct. But based on the impression I got during the speeches, if the implication that all this is done for the “awaited Mahdi” – like Evangelists – is not a deception, it destabilizes everything.
So, what do the people think?