As tensions rose between the United States and Iran over the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, Turkey warned against undermining regional stability, but was keen not to be seen to be taking sides in a clash between its NATO ally and eastern neighbour.
Though the Turkish government has drifted diplomatically towards Russia in recent years and angered many in the U.S. administration and Congress with its purchase of Russian missiles and attacks on Washington’s Kurdish allies, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has managed to maintain a good relationship with President Donald Trump that has saved Turkey from sanctions.
Turkey and Iran meanwhile, unusually for the region, have enjoyed centuries without direct conflict and have maintained cordial relations, even as they back rival factions in Syria’s civil war and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Turkey was quick to react to Soleimani’s killing in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq on Jan. 3, saying it would “further aggravate insecurity and instability in the region” and that “Turkey has always been against foreign interventions, assassinations and sectarian conflicts in the region”.
Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement during the Russian president’s Jan. 8 visit to Istanbul to open the TurkStream gas pipeline, calling the U.S. killing of Soleimani “an act undermining security and stability in the region”.
Iran and Turkey see their interests more aligned than ever. Together with Russia, the two are partners in the Astana peace talks on Syria. Turkey and Iran also both oppose any Kurdish attempts to attain autonomy in the region, and both sided with Qatar in its dispute with other Gulf countries, helping it survive a blockade.
Erdoğan has repeatedly spoken out against U.S. pressure and sanctions on Iran, but was careful not to be seen as siding too closely with the Islamic Republic after the killing of Soleimani.
Iran’s embassy to Turkey tweeted a statement on Jan 5 detailing a phone call between Erdoğan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in which it said the Turkish leader referred to Soleimani as a martyr.
“The absence of martyr Soleimani deeply saddens [us]. Iranian people, I am aware of the anger of you and the [supreme] leader,” the embassy quoted Erdoğan as saying.
Trump said he was surprised by Erdoğan’s comments.
“I disagree 100 percent. I am sure he does, too. But he has a public to take care of. I guess that’s for his own reason. I am actually surprised to hear that, but that’s okay,” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question on the Iranian tweet.
Turkish state-owned TRT World then reported that a Turkish official had denied Erdoğan had used the word martyr on the call.
The U.S. and Turkish presidents have a relationship that has endured Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia, its purchase of Russian missiles and Turkish attacks on the United States’ Kurdish allies in the fight against Islamic State in Syria. Trump has been loath to criticise Erdoğan throughout a sustained period of difficult relations between their two countries.
Turkey’s views on Soleimani are meanwhile mixed. Many pro-government commentators celebrated the general’s demise, describing him as a war criminal and some went so far as to welcome the strike as a blow to Iranian ambitions in the region.
Soleimani, for his part, was said to admire his Turkish counterparts. The Intercept reported that leaked Iranian intelligence files said Soleimani had an old relationship with Turkish former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and admired both Davutoğlu and Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan. This was at a time when Soleimani competed with both men in Syria, where Turkey and Iran supported opposite factions.
Aykan Erdemir, of the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracy think tank, said Turkey was ambivalent on Soleimani.
“On the one hand, they see Soleimani as a rival, who was responsible for the massacres against Turkey-backed Sunni groups in Syria. On the other, they saw Soleimani as an ally who offered support during Turkey’s abortive coup in 2016 and helped crush the Kurdish independence referendum in 2017 which Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad opposed in unison.”
On the night of Turkey’s July 2016 coup attempt, Soleimani was reported to have contacted Turkish officials to express support against the plotters. Iranian leaders were among the first to condemn the coup, improving bilateral ties after years of disagreement over Syria, Yemen and the wider Middle East.
Iran also joined Turkey in opposing the 2017 independence referendum held by the autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. Soleimani’s Iraqi militias supported Baghdad as it moved to retake the oil-rich region around Kirkuk and quash the move for independence.
Erdemir said that while Erdoğan comes from an Islamist tradition that reveres the Iranian revolution, Turkish Islamists see Iran as a Shia rival to Sunni Turkey in the Middle East.