Turkey, Iran, and the Sunni-Shiite Tension

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Is Turkish foreign policy becoming sectarian? Those who answer “yes” invoke some recent events: Turkey is hosting the Sunni vice president of Iraq, Tariq al-Hashemi, who was sentenced to death at home; it is supporting the opposition against the Alawite regime in Syria; and several Iranian officials have threatened Turkey over its support of the Syrian opposition.

Turkey’s relations with these three neighbors are deteriorating because of sectarian fault lines, despite Turkey’s maneuvers to avoid a Sunni-Shiite division.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been the prime minister of Turkey for about a decade. Until two years ago, Turkey had very good relations with the governments of Syria, Iraq and Iran. The fact that the leaders of these countries were Alawite or Shiite did not prevent Erdoğan from developing close personal relations with them. Erdoğan’s government defended the Bashar al-Assad regime in 2004-2005 against the George W. Bush administration. In 2010, the Erdoğan government risked its relations with Barack Obama’s administration and sparked criticism in Turkey by voting “no” in the UN Security Council to new sanctions against Iran. In 2011, in an unprecedented gesture, Erdoğan visited major Shiite shrines in Iraq.

What has changed lately? During the Arab Spring, Turkey had supported popular uprisings in various countries such as Egypt, Libya and Syria, regardless of the sectarian identity of their leaders. But the Assad regime in Syria started to shoot its peaceful protesters. It then began to use its air force on its own cities. Moreover, following the departure of American troops, the Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq became increasingly sectarian, while Maliki started to make hostile declarations against Turkey. Neither Assad nor Maliki would have dared to do this without the full-fledged support of Iran.

In this tension, Turkey has been in the defensive position while Iran and its allies have been on the offensive. Turkey has, at least relatively more, institutional reasons for self-restraint in comparison to Iran.

Turkey is a secular state. Even though over 85 percent of its population is Sunni Muslim and its Religious Affairs Directorate represents Sunni Islam, Turkey’s secular tradition and legal structure help it refrain from pursuing a sectarian policy. The institutional structure is different in Iran. The semi-theocratic institutional framework in Iran is perfectly compatible with a pro-Shiite foreign policy.

Moreover, Turkey is a multi-party democracy, if not a liberal one. The elected government in Turkey is required to pursue a balanced foreign policy. Conducting a sectarian policy in the Middle East would lead to the mobilization of Alevi and secularist civil society actors in Turkey. It would cost the government to alienate its Alevi citizens, as well as losing risk-averse voters. Iran, on the other hand, has a political regime where elections are neither free nor fair, given the veto power of the

Guardian Council over candidates and serious doubts about manipulated electoral results. Policymakers in Iran, even if they are elected, are not very likely to be moderated by the pressure of the voters or civil society groups.

The alliance between the Assad regime, the Maliki government and Iran surrounds Turkey. Their covert support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is a clear reflection of this siege attempt. The Assad regime is the weakest part of this alliance.

The US invasion and then the puzzling American support for the pro-Iranian Maliki government in Iraq turned Iran into a power broker in the Arab world. Moreover, its conflict with Israel had made Iran popular among some Arab societies, regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shiite. The Iranian support of the Assad regime, however, has ended this popularity. It will also be detrimental to Iran’s long-term relations with its Sunni Arab neighbors.

Sectarian tension in the Middle East is worrisome. Iran can be part of the solution if it stops taking the side of the minority tyranny against the people of Syria.