Turkish-Iranian relations have long been characterized by ideological polarity. Ever since the Ottoman expansion into the Levant in the early sixteenth century and the Safavid Empire’s acceptance of Shiism as the official imperial religion, relations between these two empires have been defined along the prime schism in Islam. From 1520 to 1920s this schism defined Ottoman-Safavid relations. Akin Unver argues that it was only during the modernist-revolutionary period of Ataturk and Shah Pahlavi that Iran and Turkey established good relations on secular-modernist lines, which defined the course of the relationship until the Islamic Revolution.
After the 1979 revolution, Iran’s Islamist regime emerged as the clear anti-thesis of a secular Turkey and two countries’ relationship was only sustained by political Islamists on both sides. According to Unver, this 1979-2010 Islamist connection is also being reversed by the sectarian faultlines unearthed by the Arab Spring. Iran’s rapid fall from grace with Turkish Islamists is one of the most important recent structural shifts in the Middle East, Unver suggests. Such a break is far from marginal and yields several important points for consideration.
This shift, Unver argues, validates the Ataturk- Pahlavi example, which shows that détente in Turkish-Iranian relations can only happen when both countries are ruled by a secular-modernist regime. If either country’s ruling government has an Islamist identity, relations can only improve to the extent dictated by the Ottoman-Safavid divide. If Islamism dictates both countries’ policies, then strategic conflict is inevitable, and the Sunni-Shiite historical memories and symbolism related to Karbala are evoked by both sides.
Hamid Akin Unver is a Faculty Fellow of Foreign Affairs with the Department of International Relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, Turkey. Prior, he was the Ertegun Fellow at the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University. Unver has also been a Jean-Monnet joint post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan’s Center for European Studies and the Center for the Middle East and North African Studies, during which he published the widely cited and the first English-language article on the topic: Turkey’s deep-state and the Ergenekon conundrum. Unver has assumed teaching positions at the University of Essex and Sabanci University, as well as policy research positions with the European Union Secretariat-General, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Eurasian Center for Strategic Studies, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He holds a PhD in international relations from University of Essex, UK, where his dissertation 'Defining Turkey's Kurdish Question' has won the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) 2010 Malcolm H. Kerr award for best dissertation in social sciences.
- Faculty Fellow of Foreign Affairs, Department of International Relations, Kadir Has University, Istanbul, Turkey