Turkey and Iran's power struggle in Iraq - opinion

The zero-sum game between Iran and Turkey over influence in Iraq is an attack on Iraq’s sovereignty and national dignity.

RAQI MILITIA head Faleh al-Fayyad, Deputy Commander Abdul Azizi Al-Mohammedawi, and Iranian Ambassador Iraj Masjedi mark the first anniversary of the killing of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in Baghdad, Iraq, in January. (photo credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS)
RAQI MILITIA head Faleh al-Fayyad, Deputy Commander Abdul Azizi Al-Mohammedawi, and Iranian Ambassador Iraj Masjedi mark the first anniversary of the killing of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in Baghdad, Iraq, in January.
The regional hegemonic powers clearly set out to attack Iraq’s sovereignty and national dignity. The zero-sum game between Iran and Turkey over influence in Iraq is no longer so surprising. But it raises serious questions about the Arab position on what these two countries are plotting against an Arab state with a long history.
What has happened between Iran and Turkey in recent times is not just a verbal squabble that spilled over into a diplomatic crisis, as it may seem. Indeed, there is a strong antagonism between these two countries that masquerades behind the common interest of pursuing their colonial projects while scorning Arab national sovereignty and interests.
Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi said that his country does not tolerate the presence of foreign troops in Iraq, nor a military intervention on its territory, alluding to the occupation of Iraqi territory by Turkish forces. Such a declaration would have been fair, if only it had not been made by an official of a state that is literally doing what it accuses others of doing.
Iran and Turkey are foreign powers that have been illegally intervening in Iraq for years. Each is embroiled in a barbarous occupation of parts of Iraq. How can one call the other out and describe it as an occupier? The mullahs themselves openly boasted years ago that they occupied the capital of Iraq among four Arab capitals.
No one can forget the March 2015 statement by Ali Younesi, Iran’s former minister of intelligence and adviser to the current Iranian president: “Iran has become an empire, as it has been throughout history, and its capital is now Baghdad.”
Funny how the Iranian ambassador called on Turkey to withdraw to the international border and leave the task of securing Iraq to the Iraqis, but did not tell his own side the same. His country has spread its sectarian militias all over Iraq. It is hampering the unity of the Iraqi people and sabotaging all efforts to restore security on its territory.
Of course, what applies to Iran is sure to apply to Turkey. Both have a strategic expansion project at the cost of Arab states: nibbling away at their territories, plundering their riches and exploiting them in a game of blackmail against the major powers.
THIS MAY be the moment of the projects’ clash, and conflicts of interest may arise after years of pretend cooperation and coordination between them. In repeated joint meetings in recent years, Iran and Turkey have spoken of historic friendships and other rosy phrases that did not weather the first storm that rocked the walls of these frail ties.
At the first meeting of the Turkish-Iranian Strategic Cooperation Council in June 2014 in Ankara, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey and Iran are among the most ancient countries in the region, and that their friendship is based on a past that goes beyond the history of many countries.
He went on to speak inappropriately about what he described as non-ancient Arab countries. The meeting saw a splurge of histrionics from both sides on the Palestinian issue, which they are fighting each other to exploit to conquer the hearts of Arab people, so as to implement their colonial projects through sectarian and terrorist groups and elements, alas, of Arab nationalities.
The conflict between the Iranian and Turkish projects on Iraqi soil is neither new, nor fleeting, nor shocking.
Few have bought the words of phony friendship swapped by the two countries’ leaders, who have nothing but anti-Arab sentiment. In Syria as in Iraq, there is an intense or temporarily buried conflict between the two countries, marked by divergent sectarian tendencies and a desire to extend one’s influence to others’ detriment.
Since 2003, the two sides have banded together to put a lid on the Kurdish project, consenting to violate Iraq’s sovereignty from east to west and to launch strike after strike against the Kurds. Afterward, the mullahs kept silent about Turkey’s presence in Syria, especially in Idlib. Turkey turned a blind eye to Iran’s presence in Syria.
But Turkey’s strong incursion into northern Iraq in recent months did not sit well with the mullahs. They did not welcome Turkey’s growing role in Lebanon either. The latest spat brings out a repressed anger that is looking for an exit to redefine the dynamics between the two players.
Iran and Turkey, aided by transnational terrorist organizations and groups, have done much to blur religion and politics, playing on sectarianism and seeking to erode national affiliations in favor of confessional affinities.
The mullahs view Iraq as part of the new Persian empire, as declared in 2017 by former Iranian defense minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan in 2017, while Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism looks at Arabs with the same supremacist gaze as the mullahs.
The Turkish-Iranian conflict in Iraq is the result, as noted above, of the intersection of Turkish nationalist and Iranian sectarian projects to control and dominate the Arab region and to take advantage of the power vacuum that has existed since the 2011 troubles. We may expect each side to get bolder as it solidifies its positions in Iraq and elsewhere.
THIS ADDS a new burden to Iraq and Iraqis, and weakens the current government’s efforts to gradually restore the country’s role and status.
The Arab position on Iran’s and Turkey’s assaults on Iraqi sovereignty is well known. However, Arab rejection of their interference is limited to words, and does not translate into coordinated efforts within a joint Arab diplomatic framework to respond resolutely to these violations.
In fact, the room for maneuver of Arab actors is thin. Perhaps this is due to the circumstances of the Arab regional system or the declining role of international organizations, the lack of effective international cooperation, and the changing interests and priorities due to the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic.
Nevertheless, it is imperative to provide all possible Arab support to Iraq to free this great Arab country from the straitjacket of the regional power struggle between Iran and Turkey.
The writer is a UAE political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate.