Iran, sectarianism and proxy war

Iran, sectarianism and proxy war

The government continues its war of words with the Iraqi prime minister. Remarks exchanged between them have become stiffer, especially following the visit of the Sunni vice president of Iraq, Tariq al-Hashemi, to Turkey. Shiite Iranian Prime Minister al-Maliki has renewed his claim that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs.

Into the bargain, he has also claimed that Erdoğan is doing so for sectarian reasons. Erdoğan has responded to Maliki with similar seriousness. In reality the government is aware that all of these remarks – so carefully indirect – are typical of the style of proxy war Iran conducts, because Iran prefers to speak harshly to Turkey through l-al-Maliki, rather than speaking directly. 

If one important cause of the current disturbance of the delicate balance between Iran and Turkey and this proxy war over sectarianism is the Iranian nuclear crisis, the other is the Arab Spring. The introduction of the concept of democracy and elections by the Arab Spring excited some Turkish politicians, notably Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, because even having an environment that allowed for elections in the affected countries guaranteed the government that their ideological allies in the Muslim Brotherhood would have at least some power there. But although this situation was exciting ideologically, the reality is quite different, because the combined force of the Arab Spring and the Iranian crisis has awaken tectonic fault lines the roots of which go back into the depths of history, to conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and Iran under the Safavid Dynasty. The basis of this competition was sectarian conflict, which the West forgot centuries ago, but which has not entirely quieted down in this part of the world. 

Building a foreign policy based on sectarianism always snares a country sooner or later. From now on Turkey may develop relationships in a limited area and with particular actors under the umbrella of “sectarian brotherhood,” rather than “religious brotherhood,” while the region and its problems are becoming more and more complicated. 

Turkey enjoyed great prestige in every part of the Middle East, and from every sect without discrimination, when it was going through the flotilla crisis with Israel. But after the Arab Spring the Middle East has been divided into two, based on sectarian allegiances. While Erdoğan was a leader appreciated by all Muslims until a year ago, now he is becoming the leader of the Sunnis. In addition, the close relationship he has developed with Qatar and Saudi Arabia leads to the perception that he is focused on building a forward front to defend Sunnis against the Shiite world, rather than building democracy. This idea is supported by the backing those two countries are giving to the creation of a “Sunni democracy” in Syria. 

Even if President Abdullah Gül and Davutoğlu reject a sectarian-oriented foreign policy, changing the general perception of Turkey seems improbable anymore. As a matter of fact, it is possible to see signs of this even in domestic policy. For example, the language used recently to criticize the opposition party’s policies on Syria has been sectarian. As a result, Iran understands the Turkish government’s policies to have a sectarian basis, and responds on that basis with a proxy war, the same as it did during the 16th-century, responding to the Ottoman Empire.