Merve Tahiroglu & Amir Toumaj – FDD Policy Brief
Last week, Iran’s top military commander Major General Mohammad Bagheri made an unprecedented appearance in Ankara, where he met with top Turkish officials including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan is expected to visit Tehran in the upcoming weeks. Bagheri’s visit came as Iraqi Kurds prepare to hold a controversial referendum for independence on September 25, which is opposed by all neighboring states as well as Washington. While Turkey and Iran pursue competing aims in the region, they are signaling a willingness to cooperate on a narrow set of mutual interests, primarily blocking the establishment of an independent Kurdistan within Iraq.
These high-level meetings reflect the nascent military cooperation between Turkey and Iran. The two sides discussedSyria, Iraq, joint actions on border security, operational training and defense research, as well as plans to exchange intelligence and cadets, and to dispatch naval groups and drill observers, according to senior officials.
Turkish and Iranian leaders perceive a threat from the impending Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence. Both Iran and Turkey have sizeable Kurdish minorities and have long opposed an independent Kurdish state, lest it trigger a domino effect and inspire separatism among their own Kurdish citizens.
Ankara has fought a decades-long war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated terror group whose Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has enjoyed growing international support since 2014 due to its uniquely successful battles against the Islamic State. Turkey has been alarmed by the YPG’s expanding territory in northern Syria and considers the prospect of an autonomous, PKK-dominated entity along its Syrian border its top security threat.
Iran also fights Kurdish insurgents. Last year, the Iraq-based Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) declared a renewal of its armed struggle in Iran, leading to clashes with Iranian security forces. Iran is concerned that adversaries – including the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia – may extend military support to the PDKI.
At the same time, Tehran negotiated a 2011 ceasefire with a separate Kurdish insurgent group, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), an affiliate of the PKK. The ceasefire has largely held despite infrequent clashes – including one in May with PKK militants near the Turkish-Iranian border. This helps explain why the Revolutionary Guard rebuked Erdogan after he declared this week that Iran and Turkey may launch joint operations against the PKK in Iraq. Tehran also feels less threatened from an autonomous YPG in Syria, since the group cooperates with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s client.
Despite their diverging views on various Kurdish groups, such as on the YPG and PKK, Iran and Turkey both firmly oppose an independent Kurdistan in Iraq. The two neighbors are now trying to capitalize on that mutual interest to launch closer military cooperation. But that cooperation is unlikely to move beyond narrow areas, such as border security. Tehran is also disinclined to join Turkey’s regional campaign against the PKK, unless directly attacked by the group at home. And despite the recent convergence of interests, an age-old rivalry for regional dominance will continue to constrain strategic cooperation between Iran and Turkey.