Turkey-Iran tensions rise once again: Does Iran fear a possible Turkish operation in Northern Iraq?

Turkey-Iran tensions rise once again: Does Iran fear a possible Turkish operation in Northern Iraq?

 Turkey-Iran tensions rise once again: Does Iran fear a possible Turkish operation in Northern Iraq?

Iran-Turkey tensions flare up

Turkey and Iran called in each other’s ambassadors as Turkey threatens to attack Kurdish separatists on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar, an area used by Iranian militants to cross into Syria.

Ambassador Mohammad Farazmand was called in to Turkey’s foreign ministry after Iran’s ambassador to Iraq made the comments about Ankara’s cross-border military offensive against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters based in northern Iraq.

Iranian envoy Iraj Masjedi criticised Turkey’s operations in an interview with the Rudaw news agency on Saturday.

Masjedi said in the interview: “We reject military intervention in Iraq and Turkish forces should not pose a threat or violate Iraqi soil. The security of the Iraqi area should be maintained by Iraqi forces and [Kurdistan] region forces in their area.

“We do not accept at all – be it Turkey or any other country – to intervene in Iraq militarily or advance or have a military presence in Iraq.”

Ministry officials expressed Turkey’s “rejection of the accusations levelled by Iran’s envoy in Baghdad, underlining that Ankara is fighting the PKK terrorist organisation, which targets Iraq’s stability”, Anadolu news agency reported, citing unnamed diplomatic sources.

Farazmand was told Ankara expects “Iran to support, not oppose, Turkey’s fight against terrorism”.

Turkey’s envoy to Iraq also denounced the comments in a Twitter post on Saturday.

“Ambassador of Iran would be the last person to lecture Turkey about respecting borders of Iraq,” Fatih Yildiz said.

Iran, meanwhile, summoned the Turkish ambassador on Sunday and protested remarks by Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who recently said PKK militants were operating bases in northwestern Iran, according to Anadolu.

Turkey now wants to drive the PKK ouf of Sinjar to sever their links to Syria, where affiliated militants are a dominant power within the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. That’s causing conflict with Iran because Iranian-backed militants use the area to cross into Syria.

Turkey says the PKK presence in Iraq is a national security threat and it is Baghdad’s responsibility to take action against the rebels. Ankara has vowed it would defend its borders as long as the group operates in the region.

The PKK, designated a “terrorist” group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict focused in southeast Turkey.

The Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq, dominated by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP), see the PKK as a worrying presence but have never been able to uproot it from northern Iraqi bases.

Tensions had already increased after Karabakh war

Tensions between Iran and Turkey had already flared up a few months ago, following Turkish president Erdogan’s visit to Azerbaijan to celebrate their victory in the Karabakh war in December 2020.

What sparked this rise was the controversial poem that was recited by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his visit to Azerbaijan. During his visit, Erdogan recited a poem that Tehran said could fan separatism among Iran’s Azeri minority.

“They didn’t tell Erdogan that the poem he ill-recited in Baku refers to the forcible separation of areas north of Aras from the Iranian motherland,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted.

In the meantime, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said on its website: “The Turkish ambassador was informed that the era of territorial claims and expansionist empires is over.”

Iranian lawmaker Ali Asgar Hani threatened the Turkish president by posting a picture of Saddam Hussein hanging on Twitter with the caption: “Mr Erdogan, this was the fate of the last person who coveted Iranian land.” The image was later deleted.

Turkey then rebuked Tehran for “offensive language” aimed at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in connection with a controversial poem that might suggest Iran’s northwestern provinces belong to Azerbaijan. It must be said that although Iran and Turkey have increased economic cooperation over the past decade, they remain rivals in several parts of the Middle East and Central Asia.

Iranian authorities summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Tehran to complain about Erdogan’s “interventionist and unacceptable remarks.” In return, Turkey summoned Iran’s ambassador to Ankara over the “baseless” claims. Turkey doubled down on Saturday, with a statement by presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun that said: “We condemn the use of offensive language toward our president and our country over the recitation of a poem, whose meaning has been deliberately taken out of context.” Altun said the poem “passionately reflects the emotional experience of an aggrieved people due to Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijani lands.”

Despite this, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said Tehran could move past a diplomatic quarrel with Turkey over the poem.

“In my opinion, with the explanations (Turkish officials) gave, we can move beyond this issue, but the sensitivity of our people is very important,” Rouhani told a televised news conference in Tehran

“Based on my past knowledge of Mr Erdogan, it is very unlikely that he had any intention of insulting our territorial integrity,” Rouhani said. “He always recites poetry in his speeches.”

However, as we can see now, Iran and Turkey’s clash of interests goes even deeper than the poem that threatened Iran’s territorial integrity.

Does Iran fear Turkish influence in Iraq?

On February 10, the Turkish Armed Forces began Operation Claw Eagle-2 against PKK positions in the mountainous Gara region in Northern Iraq, close to the Syrian border.

The operation was primarily aimed at rescuing 13 Turkish citizens who were held captive in a cave by the PKK. The terrorists killed the hostages in the cave, as Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar revealed, through close-range gunshots to the head during an intense clash between Turkish soldiers and the PKK. Three soldiers were also killed in clashes.

This is not the first critical operation that Turkey has conducted in Iraq’s north. In the past, Turkey targeted PKK positions in Sinjar, Qandil, Karacak, Zap, Avasin-Basyan and Hakurk areas. The PKK often hide in caves in the mountains, using them as a launching pad for cross-border attacks in Turkey.

According to Turkey’s Interior Ministry, 70 percent of PKK attacks targeting Turkey came from northern Iraq back in 2019, and Ankara sees the elimination of PKK in the Gara region pivotal in stopping cross-border attacks.

A mountainous region close to the Syrian border, the Gara region, is key to accessing Sinja—the region where the PKK has a strong influence and connects to other areas controlled by the group.

However, there are now fears, that in response to the killing of 13 Turkish citizens by the PKK in Iraq, Turkey will launch a full scale operation into Northern Iraqi territories, similar to Operation Peace Spring in Syria in 2019.

Supporting these predictions, following the killings, Erdogan declared that “from now on, nowhere is safe for terrorists, neither Qandil nor Sinjar or Syria”.

Despite Iraq’s reluctance to consent to joint operations in Sinjar, Turkey may choose to pursue unilateral military operations against the PKK (with the tacit support of the KRG), as it has done for years in the Qandil mountains.

The prospect of a unilateral Turkish incursion has angered Iranian-backed armed groups in Iraq. In recent days, several PMU units and other militias – including the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Ashab al-Kahf – have released statements pledging to defend Sinjar against a Turkish “invasion”. Reportedly, 10,000 more militia members, including fighters from Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hizbullah, have deployed to Sinjar in recent weeks. Ashab al-Kahf recently claimed to have carried out rocket attacks against Turkish military forces in northern Iraq, while Harakat Hizbullah al-Nujaba recently threatened to take action if the Iraqi government did not. Iran is encouraging these armed groups to deploy in defence of Sinjar. It is keen for them to maintain their dominance of Sinjar because of the strategic importance of the area as a point of access to Syria.

This is a major threat to Iran-Turkey relations, and a Turkish operation, that would involve fighting Iran-backed militias, could un-repairably rupture ties between Ankara and Tehran. Turkey and Iran, have engaged in a fierce competition for Middle Eastern hegemony but, to achieve this, they will have to break free of the other’s influence from the South Caucasus to Syria and from Iraq to Lebanon. Although, in the past few years, Turkish-Iranian relations have often been characterized by cooperation thanks to the Astana/Sochi process, their interests are increasingly divergent. Competition rather than cooperation is more likely to define their future relationship, as the two neighbors have flexed their muscles not only in Syria and Iraq, but also the South Caucasus.

Hazem Zahab

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