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Longtime Islamic antagonists drawing closer

WASHINGTON – Turkey and Iran have sided with opposing factions in the three-year Syrian civil war.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants Syrian President Bashar al-Assad removed forcibly while Iran supports him at almost all cost.

Yet, Sunni Turkey and Shiite Iran appear to be drawing closer in their diplomatic relations, a development that could impact the entire Middle East landscape.

The two countries have had their differences, going back to the period of the Turkish Ottoman Empire and when Iran was known as Persia. In the 20th century, Turkey became a republic and oriented itself more toward the West, especially during the Cold War period.

As a secular Muslim government, Turkey opposed the 1979 Iranian revolution and was exasperated because officials believed Iran sponsored terrorist groups in Turkey with the intention of spreading its brand of Islam.

In turn, post-revolutionary Iran saw Turkey and its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a threat.

But during the Iran-Iraq war, Turkey looked on Tehran less as a threat than the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, helping both countries to smooth out relations.

After the Gulf War, relations between Ankara and Tehran began to edge upward, including cooperative efforts on the Kurdish issue, which threatened territories in both countries.

With the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party in 2002, relations improved even further as the Turkish government appeared to become more Islamic under Erdogan.

Even though Turkey maintained the vestiges of a secular government, Iran welcomed the slight change in direction.

Then the two countries increased trade, principally through purchases of oil and natural gas by Turkey.

The desire by Tehran to have a more reliable trading partnership with Turkey increased as Western sanctions were imposed due to Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, which the West believes masks the production of nuclear weapons.

Leading up to 2011, Turkey and Iran then increased bilateral economic and business ties. For example, during that period, Iranian businesses based in Turkey increased from some 300 to more than 2,000.

The Syrian civil war, however, has brought about a serious strain on the relationship. Sunni Turkey has gone so far as to allow Sunni Wahabbi fighters to use its territory in an effort to topple Assad.

Because he thought Assad’s days were numbered, Erdogan saw Turkey as an ally to what he perceived would be a Sunni government, particularly the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, in Syria.

But that hasn’t happened, and now Assad appears to be staying, thanks in great measure to the help of Iran and its Shiite Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.

The development had put Turkey and Iran in a faceoff over Syria’s fate, but each sees a confluence of benefits in developing a security partnership along with improving trade and business.

In so doing, Ankara sees Iran actually assisting Turkey in mitigating relations in the face of Assad’s possible survival.

Both countries already are looking for trade to increase from $20 billion to $30 billion next year. Ankara also is buoyant over the increasing prospect of Iran opening more to the West, especially in view of U.S. overtures to Tehran.

At the same time, Tehran will be looking to Ankara to assist in its overtures to the West.

Iranian Parliament Vice Speaker Mohammad Hasssan Aboutorabi-Fard recently met with Turkish Ambassador Umit Yardim and underscored that developing ties with Turkey was Iran’s “top priority.”

“The development and expansion of close friendly relations with Turkey in different arenas is among the priorities of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy, and we hope that the trend of growth in bilateral ties, especially in the parliamentary and economic fields, will be further accelerated,” the Iranian parliamentarian vice speaker said.

For his part, Yardim said, “Turkey will take very opportunity to develop and expand relations.”

In recent days, Turkey also has licensed two Iranian banks to operate in Turkey.

Iran’s Bank Pasargad and Bank Tejarat will open branches in Turkey while Bank Mellat will expand its branches there.

More cooperation is expected.

“The relationship (between Ankara and Tehran) seems to be facing a new stage full of interests,” said Middle East expert Khorshid Dali, a Syrian. “Each party has its ambitions that motivate it to look for a common axis that will change regional equations at the expense of the Arab countries, especially in the Gulf.”

Just as Ankara sees Tehran helping it out with Syria, regional analysts say it also will look to Iran to help in cultivating Turkey’s influence with the Gulf Arab countries which are at odds over which Sunni country – Saudi Arabia or Turkey – will become the major influence among them in the region.

Seeing how Saudi Arabia is waging a proxy war in Syria against Iran, it will be in Tehran’s interest to work with a more moderate Turkey to establish that influence.