A Complex Alignment in the Middle East

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Dr. Muhammad Akram Zaheer

The unexpected attack on Israel by Hamas caused concern about a potential escalation of the Gaza conflict into a regional war. The U.S. commitment to the Middle East has raised worries in Turkey and Iran. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) views unconditional U.S. support for Israel as an obstacle to de-escalation efforts, while Iran sees the United States as Israel’s partner in the Gaza civilian massacre. Both countries fear that increased U.S. presence in the Middle East could harm their regional interests. Despite differing approaches to Hamas, both Ankara and Tehran have connections to the group. Turkey, unlike its Western allies, does not label Hamas as a terrorist organization. President Tayyab Erdoğan sees Hamas as part of the Palestinian resistance, aligning with Turkey’s policy to defend the Palestinian cause. However, Turkey has distanced itself from Arab Islamists, including Hamas, since 2020, aiming to improve relations with Arab states and Israel.

In contrast, Iran provides political, economic, and military support to Hamas. Tehran seeks to capitalize on the changing regional dynamics and growing anti-Israel sentiment in the Muslim world. Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir expressed Iran’s readiness to play a role in the release of civilian hostages held by Hamas, aligning with Turkey and Qatar. Amid the Gaza conflict, Iranian and Turkish leaders held talks for dialogue and coordination. However, the limits of Turkey’s influence on Israel and its ineffective attempts to mediate hostage negotiations with Hamas have become apparent. Hamas carried out a violent and unexpected attack on Israel on October 7, causing disruption in the Middle East. The United States responded by sending two aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean, fearing an escalation of the Gaza conflict into a regional war. To reinforce defenses, 900 additional U.S. troops were deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of operations due to increased attacks by Iran-linked militias in the region. The renewed U.S. commitment to the Middle East has raised concerns in Turkey and Iran. Turkey’s leadership sees unconditional U.S. support for Israel as a hindrance to de-escalation efforts, while Iran views the United States as Israel’s “undeniable partner” in the Gaza civilian casualties. Both Ankara and Tehran fear that a strong American presence in the Middle East will negatively impact their regional interests. The Gaza conflict has the potential to bring Turkey and Iran closer due to their shared objections to the U.S.-led regional and global order. However, there are limits to a lasting alliance between the two countries.

Both Turkey and Iran have ties to Hamas, but of different natures. Turkey does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization and supports it as part of its policy to defend the Palestinian cause. However, since 2020, Turkey has distanced itself from Arab Islamists, including Hamas, to improve relations with Arab states and Israel. On the other hand, Iran provides political, economic, and military support to Hamas. Besides their relationship with Hamas, Turkey and Iran share concerns about the American presence in Syria. Ankara opposes continued U.S. support for the Kurds in northern Syria, considering it an obstacle to curbing Kurdish autonomy. Iran aims to challenge the U.S. presence in Syria to remove American forces from the region. There are attempts by Iran and Russia to mediate between Damascus and Ankara regarding Syria, although no concrete results have been achieved. Additionally, in the South Caucasus, despite differences between Iran and Turkey, there are signs of potential collaboration, such as Iran’s acceptance of the 3+3 initiative proposed by Turkey. Ankara and Tehran also coincide in their perceptions of the changing world order. Both question the coherence and effectiveness of Western institutions and advocate for a more equal international order. Turkey criticizes the structure of the UN Security Council and has disrupted NATO, while Iran seeks to strengthen ties with emerging powers, such as its strategic partnership with China and membership in the SCO and BRICS. Both countries aim to break away from Western-dominated international structures.

For Tehran and Ankara, the events following October 7 seem to have created an opportunity that supports their assumptions and revisionist efforts. The belief in Israel’s invincible military and intelligence has been shattered. This has also impacted the U.S. government’s attempts to restore regional order by promoting normalization between Arab countries and Israel, at least in the short term. Many in the Global South are frustrated with the strong and unconditional support that the U.S. and the EU offer to Israel. Israel’s refusal to issue visas to UN officials, despite indirect criticism from the UN chief, reinforces the view of Ankara and Tehran that the international body is dysfunctional. This situation could lead to closer cooperation among different reformist actors. For instance, on October 26, Hamas leaders visited Moscow, and Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri met with a Hamas delegation on the same day. Turkish Foreign Minister, mentioning Turkey’s proposed “guarantee formula,” urged China and Russia, as members of the United Nations Security Council, to contribute to a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, there are limits to the emergence of a “reform axis.” Firstly, Turkey is a NATO member. Despite events in Gaza, President Erdoğan surprised many by approving Sweden’s NATO membership and sending the bill to the Turkish parliament for ratification. NATO membership allows Turkey flexibility in balancing its relations between Western allies and Russia. Unlike Iran’s revolutionary stance, Turkey’s revisionism is more reformists. Ankara also sees Tehran’s non-state allies as potential threats in Syria and Iraq.

As the Gaza conflict continues, the shared concern about the United States’ return to the Middle East might overshadow the competing interests of Tehran and Ankara, potentially preventing a clash between their regional policies. Both actors aim to reshape their common neighborhood, capitalizing on the current state of world politics after the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. However, once a new order emerges, their historical competition for strategic dominance in areas like Iraq and Syria may resurface. Furthermore, the commitment of other revisionist actors is uncertain. Russia may benefit from increased cooperation between Turkey and Iran, seeking to sideline Western actors, but the sustainability of this remains unclear. Despite Russia’s current controversial stance against Israel, there’s no evidence yet that Moscow intends to completely change its long-term policy towards Israel. China may find the Iran-Turkey relationship useful but will likely proceed cautiously, considering its relations with the Gulf States.  Iranian and Turkish interests seem increasingly aligned against Israel’s actions and the resurgence of a U.S.-led regional order, their historical competition and various forms of global revisionism suggest that any emerging alliance between them may be weak and potentially stressful in the medium to long term.

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