Turkey and the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

Turkey’s friendly relationship with the revolutionary theocracy in Iran and its regional proxies and allies has been too close for comfort since the end of the Cold War, and especially since the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2002. These dynamics exist quite independently from the more recent and severe divergences between Turkey and the United States over Syria, and cannot be resolved simply by addressing the Syrian standoff. While domestic politics and regional realities dictate that Turkey and Iran would have to find some modus vivendi and confluence of interests, there is a substantial Islamist ideological element underlying Erdogan’s overall affection for the Islamic Republic. Even if the US could repair its alliance with Ankara, an AKP-led Turkey can never be a useful tool for containing, much less rolling back, Iranian expansionism.

Erdogan is not the first Islamist to hold the reins in Turkey. That position belongs to his mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, a radical pan-Islamic ideologue who only managed to remain Prime Minister for a year before being forced to resign by the Military in 1997. Erbakan was obsessed with creating an Islamic order across the spectrum of international relations, proclaiming in a campaign speech that Turkey “will set up an Islamic United Nations, an Islamic NATO and an Islamic version of the European Union.” The pillar of this reorientation would be developing friendly relations with all the radical sponsors of terrorism throughout the world, particularly Iran, the “Muslim brother” whose regional “resistance” against the West Erbakan lauded. His first step was to sign a US$23 billion gas deal with Iran, its largest ever, even as it was under US sanctions.

The about-face in Turkish alignment also included Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, as well as Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan, at the time a global fulcrum of transnational terrorism. Erbakan even reportedly invited the openly antisemitic American “Nation of Islam” leader Louis Farrakhan to address his party’s convention, and shamelessly supported and praised Hamas. For all his conspiratorial diatribes against US and Israeli actions, he refused to criticize Syria or Iran for supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish terrorist group which was Turkey’s only genuine security threat at the time.  

Erbakan’s Welfare Party – whose platform blamed all of Turkey’s problems on “world imperialism and Zionism, as well as Israel and a handful of champagne-drinking collaborators in the holding companies that feed it” –  incubated Erdogan, who rose quickly through its ranks. He was allegedly convinced in prison that Erbakan was too radical and a new, less provocative Islamist party was needed, culminating in the creation of AKP. While Erdogan is not Erbakan and AKP is not merely a rebranding of the Welfare Party, the Islamist ideological underpinnings are similar and a vital component driving Turkey’s affinity for the Iranian regime.

 

Turkey, Hamas, and Hezbollah

The AKP and Erdogan made these shared ideological underpinnings very clear, and despite maintaining good trade relations with Israel, became comprehensive facilitators of every aspect of Iran’s “axis of resistance.”  Like Erbakan, Erdogan vociferously supported Hamas at the height of the second intifada, calling Israel’s assassination campaign against key leaders “state terror.” When Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006, Erdogan invited Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas leader based in Damascus, over the heads of the Foreign Ministry, and said the genocidal terrorist group’s victory had to be respected. The affinity of AKP, itself an oblique child of the Muslim Brotherhood, for the Brotherhood’s Gaza affiliate was perhaps inevitable, but the military alliance has become substantially stronger since 2006, particularly after Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and the infamous Mavi Marmara incident in 2010.

Following the 2008 war in Gaza, Turkey barred Israel from participating in the 2009 “Anatolian Eagle” NATO exercises, ultimately leading to their cancellation by the US. This prompted one senior Israeli official to tell Haaretz that perhaps the strategic ties that we thought existed have simply ended.”

The 2010 “Gaza Freedom flotilla” which led to the Mavi Marmara incident was self-evidently designed by AKP as a deliberate provocation against Israel, which Erdogan used to great effect. Following the crisis, More than a dozen senior Hamas officials, including their Iran envoy and the founder of their military wing, established bases of operations in Turkey, according to Jonathan Schanzer at the Foundation For Defense of Democracies. Erdogan himself ordered the Ministry of Finance in 2011 to support Hamas to the tune of $300 million, Schanzer says, citing contemporaneous reports in Palestinian media. Israeli security services continue to report on the extensive relationship between Turkey and Hamas, which runs a military office in Istanbul staffed by terrorists released by Israel in a prisoner swap. This office runs Hamas’ military operations in the West Bank, and was even responsible for handling transnational operatives like Fadi al-Batsh, the Hamas engineer assassinated a year ago in Malaysia. The office is reportedly still run long-distance by Saleh al-Arouri, recently expelled by Turkey to Lebanon, where he interfaces with Iran and Hezbollah on behalf of Hamas.

More disturbing than AKP’s relationship with Hamas is its full-throated support of Hezbollah, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) branch in Lebanon. During the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, Israeli intelligence discovered that Iran was resupplying Hezbollah via Turkey. While the US said Turkey was unaware of the shipments and cracked down once informed, Israeli officials said they’d repeatedly alerted the Turks on the shipments and nothing had been done. In fact, these shipments continued through at least 2009, according to diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks, despite Israel raising the issue multiple times with Erdogan. In 2010, Erdogan called Hezbollah’ Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah to express condolences over the death of Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, widely considered Hezbollah’s “spiritual mentor.” In fact, Fadlallah served as Hezbollah’s direct line to Iran, which is why the Soviets threatened him in order to free Hezbollah’s Russian hostages during the Lebanese Civil War.

Upon his return from Lebanon, where he met with Nasrallah and other Hezbollah officials, Erdogan parroted Hezbollah propaganda, claiming they had nothing to do with the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and were only “the spirit of resistance” in Lebanon. He then proceeded to threaten Israel over any further military action against either Hezbollah or Hamas.

 

Turkey and Iran

Under the AKP’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy, Erdogan made clear that, concerning Iran, his government would pick up where the Welfare Party left off. It began with a natural gas deal in 2007 to cement the alliance with Iran and Syria’s Assad, who Erdogan was personally trying to rehabilitate up until 2011. The AKP then progressively increased its interference on Iran’s behalf in every sphere. Already in 2009, Erdogan said about Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “There is no doubt he is our friend,” refusing even to criticise Iran for its brutal post-election crackdown. More importantly, and despite all indications to the contrary, he defended Iran’s nuclear program, proclaiming, “Iran does not accept it is building a weapon. They are working on nuclear power for the purposes of energy only.”

By 2010, it was clear that in both official forums such as the United Nations as well as via illegal sanctions-busting mechanisms, a key priority for Turkey was empowering Iran.

It attempted multiple times to head off sanctions in the UN against Iran over its nuclear program, and when this didn’t work, it did everything possible to undermine them. Erdogan publicly announced he hoped to triple trade with Iran over five years, and Turkey began running the “Gas-for-Gold” scheme, which Schanzer says is one of the largest sanctions-evading programs in history. The “Gas-for-Gold” scheme is possibly ongoing, accounting for Turkey’s massive gold purchases from sanctioned Venezuela –  incidentally via Tareck El Aissami, a Venezuelan liaison for the IRGC, as well as Alex Nain Saab Moran, who is linked to Hezbollah’s Venezuelan operations. 

 

Nothing has changed in a decade, with Erdogan recently saying he’ll defy all future sanctions and his Foreign Minister rejecting US moves to bring Iranian oil exports, which are vital to Turkey, down to zero. The US recently sanctioned a massive network, mostly based in Turkey, that continues to facilitate Iranian sanctions evasion and IRGC operations.

Militarily, Turkey’s pro-Iranian, anti-Israel orientation was further upgraded by the appointment of Hakan Fidan to head Turkey’s national intelligence agency, MiT, in 2010. Fidan reportedly began passing intelligence shared by the US and Israel with Turkey to the IRGC, and in 2012 Erdogan exposed an Israeli spy ring based between Iran and Turkey.

Turkey also seems to believe it has found common cause with Iran against the PKK, although Turkey and Iran have had ups and downs on this issue as Turkey used to, correctly, accuse Iran of supporting the PKK.

In the end, Turkish outreach to Iran and its allies has generally failed, mostly due to Assad’s reactions to peaceful protests against his regime and subsequent civil war. Erdogan even publicly supported the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen, calling on Iran to withdraw support from the Houthis. However, the trilateral alliance between Russia, Turkey, and Iran over Syria may yet restore the status quo ante relationships, while Erdogan himself is certainly very enthusiastic about continuing to ensure Iran has freedom of maneuver in the Middle East regardless of tactical and occasionally even strategic disagreements.

Turkey and the US are on opposite sides of every issue of importance in both the Middle East as well as the rest of the world, and a much longer piece could be written exploring every one of those disagreements and the reasons for them. But even if these myriad issues were to be resolved, which is not possible, Turkey under AKP rule would still continue to at the very least passively enable Iran’s belligerent and expansionist behaviour, if not actively facilitate it. Much of the relationship is based on simple economic and political imperatives, but there are ideological facets that AKP will simply never be able to relinquish.