Emerging warmth of Turkey-Iran relationship shows myth of 'Sunni vs Shia'

Iran and Turkey ostensibly back different sides in Syria, but in recent years they have grown closer due to joint opposition to the US and also Israel. Iran and Turkey both back Hamas, for instance.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey meet in Tehran, Iran September 7, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS)
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey meet in Tehran, Iran September 7, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Pro-government media in Turkey widely embraced the recent talks between Ankara and Tehran. They are at least the sixth round of such talks that have generally been held in the framework of discussing Syria.
Iran and Turkey ostensibly back different sides in Syria, but in recent years they have grown closer due to joint opposition to the US and also Israel. Iran and Turkey both back Hamas, for instance.
They share a regional worldview on many issues. They are increasingly cooperating now against Kurdish dissident groups.
The Iran-Turkey emerging warm relationship runs counter to the ideas that have been put forward by commentators, think tanks, experts and strategists that have divided the Middle East into sectarian camps of “Sunni” and “Shi’ite.”
This paradigm arose only in the last decades, whereas before the region was portrayed as divided into other camps, such as nationalist regimes or pro-Soviet regimes and those closer to the US.
The sectarian divide was fanned due to conflicts in places such as Iraq and Lebanon. Groups such as ISIS did target Shi’ites for extermination. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is common for Sunni extremist groups to target Shi’ites as well.
Iran’s alliance system is largely based not only in Shi’ite communities in Lebanon and Iraq, but also in other non-Sunni groups, such as the Syrian regime leadership. The mass sectarian violence in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003 appeared to show that the region would split along religious lines. A decade and a half later, things are not so simple.  
One of the issues with the “Sunni vs Shia” analysis was that it created a concept whereby Western countries were supposed to ally with “Sunnis” against Iran; or in the opposite case, when embracing the Iran deal, they were supposed to go soft on Hezbollah and the Assad regime to please Iran and “confront” the former “Sunni Arab leaders” in places such as the Gulf.
This simplistic binary was posited as a way for policy-makers to approach the region. These ideas that Middle East conflicts were rooted in religious issues going back to the eighth century led to comments by leaders such as former US president Barack Obama about conflicts going back “millennia” in the Middle East, a comment he was critiqued for in 2016.
US President Donald Trump appeared to channel the same view in a speech to West Point graduates in June when he said it was not the duty of the US to solve “ancient conflicts in faraway lands.”
When it comes to Turkey and Iran, this lens of “ancient conflict” is often at play. We are told that Turkey and Iran cannot get along because one is the descendant of the Ottoman Empire and the other the Persian Empire. One is Sunni and led by a pro-Muslim Brotherhood party, and the other is a Shi’ite revolutionary Islamic “republic.”
The rhetoric coming out of Tehran and Ankara doesn’t sound like Persia vs Ottomans and Shia vs Sunni. Turkey today embraces Iran and pushes for “dialogue with Iran to find possible solutions to problems in their shared region,” Turkey’s president indicated, according to the Anadolu news agency in Turkey. “Dialogue between Turkey and Iran has played a determinant role in resolving many regional problems,” Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said at the sixth meeting of the Turkey-Iran High-Level Cooperation Council.
Iran’s Hassan Rouhani agreed: “I believe our cooperation will return to its previous levels as the epidemic subsides.”
Let’s compare this to the daily dose of Iranian regime views of other states, like the US, Israel or Saudi Arabia, or Turkish media daily attacks on France, the US, Israel and other countries. Iran’s supreme leader said this week that “Zionists and arrogant powers’ anti-Islamic policies are behind such hostile moves... to divert West Asian nations and states’ attention away from evil plots US and Zionist regime are hatching for the region.”
Turkey’s foreign minister has said Europe’s “racist spoiled children” should “know their place.” Ankara has compared several European countries to Nazi regimes and threatens Greece daily, comparing a future battle with Greece to the defeat of Greeks in wars 100 years ago. One would have to go back many years to find similar insults by Turkey directed at Iranian regime leaders.
FOR SOME policy-makers in the West, there is a theory that Turkey is a natural ally against Iran and that this Sunni-Shia divide can be somehow exploited and that these countries are destined to clash.
However, both Turkey and Iran today have media that are basically state controlled. In Turkey, people are imprisoned for critiquing the president, critiquing Ankara’s recent wars or even making fun of TV shows.
This means almost all Turkish media in Turkey today reflect the views of the AK Party which is in power. Those media are warm toward Iran. The same is true of Iranian media.
Gone are the days when Turkey’s media would critique Iranian-backed groups in Iraq or when Iran would call Turkish-backed groups “takfiri militants.”
That doesn’t mean Iran and Turkey see eye-to-eye on Syria. It means that they have agreed to partition parts of Syria and Iraq into spheres of influence. Iran sees Iraq as its “near abroad” and Turkey sees northern Syria and northern Iraq as its “near abroad.” Both regimes are intensely hostile to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Ankara has grown hostile to the US, embracing Russia. Iran and Turkey are both growing closer to China.
Together, Turkey, Iran, Qatar and Malaysia have also worked on discussions about a new “Islamic currency” and other solutions to global “Islamic” issues. Turkey speaks frequently about the Islamic “ummah” or community, as does Iran, and both countries seek to “liberate al-Aqsa,” a reference to Jerusalem’s Islamic holy site.
The Hamas connection, whereby both are supporters of Hamas, represents the way that Turkey, Iran and, to an extent Qatar as well are now a regional alliance that is emerging. In some places, these allies come up against each other potentially, such as in Iraq or Syria, or Lebanon.
But they generally share more than what divides them now. For instance, Turkey wants a foothold in Lebanon. It will work within the Sunni community. Iran has a foothold.
Both want to weaken the pro-Saudi Sunni elements of Lebanon. That is how they work together. They don’t agree on all things, but they both work with Russia and Hamas, and they both dislike Israel and the US, and they both prefer to carve up the region into spheres of influence to weaken Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Whether the current Turkey-Iran honeymoon will last, or whether it is a temporary alliance of convenience that will inevitably fall apart as they grow stronger, remains to be seen. However, the old paradigm of seeing the Middle East solely through the sectarian lens has been upended by the realities on the ground.
The sectarian killings have been reduced, and just as the Cold War regimes morphed into something else, so these conflicts are morphing as well.
The key question now is whether Ankara might even go one step further and begin to put out feelers to groups, such as Hezbollah or the Houthis, to discuss how they might work together against Israel or Saudi Arabia.