Last Sunday, Jews across the world celebrated the Purim festival, which commemorates the saving of the Jews from the Persians. During his visit to Russia last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed out the significance of the festival to Russian President Vladimir Putin and voiced Israel's concerns over the growing influence of Iran in the region, especially in Syria. Putin's reply, however, was rather interesting, as he urged the Israeli prime minister to refrain from judging Iran based on fifth century B.C. standards, saying we lived in a different world.
Since the breakout of the Syrian civil war, Israel has been criticized for remaining relatively silent over how Iran has involved itself in the war-torn country and mobilized its proxies, mainly the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
Despite the fact that Israel has carried out several air raids on the regime and Hezbollah positions not only in the occupied Golan Heights, but also in the outskirts of Damascus, Tel Aviv has so far avoided encountering Iran over regional conflicts. Instead, it has made several comments on Iran's nuclear power and its tests of long-range missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
However, in relation to Netanyahu's recent statements, saying that there was "an attempt by Persia's heir, Iran, to destroy the state of the Jews," it is obvious that Israel is indeed aware of the threat of seeing Iran in Syria, almost like its neighbor.
This changing attitude brings about the question to whether or not a new Turkish-Israeli alliance, in the context of Iran's growing presence and influence in the region, primarily in Syria and Iraq, was possible? After all, the two countries have focused on mending ties following the long standoff over the Mavi Marmara raid by Israeli forces that killed 9 Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American citizen in international waters.
Confirming the aptness of the question, a Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to Daily Sabah that Israel was indeed looking into the possibilities of forming an anti-Iran alliance consisting of the Gulf countries and wanted Turkey to being a part of it. Turkey, however, had its concerns over the issue.
Turkey-Iran relations had enjoyed some recent improvements as Tehran and Ankara both approached on terms of trade as well as gas and oil deals. However, some recent incidents in Syria, when the Turkish military-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces and Iran-backed militias encountered, and in Iraq, where Turkey strongly opposed the participation of the radical Shiite militia group, the Hashd al-Shaabi, in the Mosul operation, have strained relations, leading to a war of words. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during his visit to the Gulf last month, accused Iran of playing the sectarianism card, Iranian officials said their patience had a limit.
Daily Sabah spoke to several experts and academics to find the answer to whether the region will witness a Turkish-Israeli block against Iran.
The experts pointed out that the three countries had overlapping and conflicting interests in the region. Given the multi-faceted nature of the areas for cooperation or clashes, it would be difficult to say whether any of them was willing to make a concession - necessary to create an unconditional alliance.
Moreover, the way Israel and Turkey deal with Iran are very different. While Israel thinks Iran has an ultimate goal of eliminating Israel, Turkey's concerns lie in demographic changes and the exclusion of non-Shiite Muslims from politics and political reforms in the region.
Iran's expanding influence in the region
One of the primary questions was how Iran succeeded in expanding its influence to this extent? Micha'el Tanchum, a fellow at Hebrew University's Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace as well as the Energy Policy Center at Bilkent University, said the current situation could be attributed to the former U.S. government's (under Barack Obama) policy of reducing its involvement in the Middle East. "It would seem that the prior U.S. administration made a key decision to reduce its involvement in the Middle East and allow a new balance of power to emerge in the region in which Iranian hegemony would expand to a certain point and then be contained by a counter-balancing alignment of nations," Tanchum said. "The matter of which nation or partnership of nations would lead this alignment is being worked out among Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt," he added.
Asked about Israel's silence regarding the Syrian war, Selin Nasi, a columnist at both the Istanbul-based Salom newspaper and Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News, said, "Israel avoided direct engagement in Syria since day one. However, this doesn't mean that Israel was completely out of the frame," and reminded that Israeli jets targeted Hezbollah positions several times.
The growing Iranian influence was accounted for the country's ability to mobilize Shiites in the region, which is seen as an existential threat by the Gulf nations, which have a considerable Shiite population.
Nevertheless, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a professor at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the author of several books, including "On the Arab Revolts and the Iranian Revolution," refused the validity of this argument and said, "Iran seeks to widen its allies world-wide including in the Sunni-Islamic world. For a minority, the Shia, it does not make sense to follow sectarian motives because it confines the orbit of influence to that minority." He, however, stated the fact that "the Shia element in Iran's state identity discourse, matured since the 16th century, when it was institutionalized by the Safavids, as a national ideology."
Hakkı Uygur, head of the Ankara-based Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM), said that Iran was using sectarianism as one of its means in regional politics. He said this situation, which can be observed explicitly in the Iranian constitution, is related to the role that Iran has been attributing to itself since 1979. He said the use of sectarianism could also be seen in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. He warned that sectarianism was just one of the tools for political influence and Iran had, in its possession, several other tools.
On a different note, another matter that can be questioned is whether there was any mutual trust between Russian and Iranian administrations, as Russia, on one hand, appreciates Iran's efforts in keeping Bashar Assad afloat, while, on the other, attempts to better ties with Turkey and Israel.
Hazar Vural, a researcher at the Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies (TASAM), underlined that relations between Iran and Russia was based on geo-political terms and that their major common interest was to preserve the Syrian regime. She said "Iran's line of resistance is on the route of Russia's exit to the Eastern Mediterranean. The security of Russian military bases in the Mediterranean depends on keeping the Syrian regime at the post." Pointing out the fact that Russian occupation in 20th century and the power struggle in the Caucasia in the 19th century continues to occupy an important place in Iran's political history, she said, "It is not possible to talk about an unconditional alliance." In reference to Turkish-Iranian relations, Vural said, "The relations are affected by external factors. Despite the disputes over Iraq and Syria, a fundamental fraction will not benefit either country," and described the relation as an "alliance within competition."
On a similar note, Adib-Moghaddam said that there were several fields where the two countries could actually cooperate, and emphasized on the energy deals, common stance toward an independent Kurdish state and historical inter-dependences.
Meanwhile, Uygur also said relations between the two countries could be affected by external factors and, at this point, neither Iran nor Turkey was on the winning side.
Turkish-Iranian relations enters a new phase
However, it is an undeniable fact that Turkish-Iranian relations have entered a new phase and deteriorated recently, giving way to the question of whether Iran's growing influence that saw an encounter between Tehran and Ankara would lead to a Turkish-Israeli alliance.
Selin Nasi was optimistic over the future of the relations. "I think ties between Turkey and Israel Turkish-Israeli has caught a positive momentum. Shared geopolitical interests drive the two countries toward enhanced cooperation, primarily in areas related to energy and regional security," she said. She also pointed out that improving ties will strengthen Turkey's position in the peace process between Israel and Palestine. It will also convince Israeli lobbies in Washington to work for Turkey's interests at a time when the U.S.'s support for the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria is harming bilateral relations between the U.S. and Turkey. "Aside from that, having cordial relations with Israel has always had a positive impact on Turkey's relations with Washington, owing to the efforts of pro-Israel lobbies. At a time when Turkish-American relations have been weathering the storm caused by the Syria war, this might help rebuild broken bridges between Ankara and Washington. What is more, the Trump administration's apparent strategy of balancing Iran in the region, strikes a chord with Ankara and Tel Aviv. In the light of these developments, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of Turkish-Israeli relations, though this may not evolve into a deeper military cooperation like in the 1990s," she said.
Yet, she underlined the fact that the Palestine issue was very sensitive in Turkey. For instance, the latest move by Israel to silence the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, at certain times of the day, caused anger among the Turkish public and drew criticism even from the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP). Recalling the Palestinian issue, Adib-Moghaddam said, "I don't think that Israel can be seen as an official ally [for Turkey] at this juncture. Whilst Saudi Arabia is covertly working with Israel, and Turkey has had long-standing security relations with that country, any politician in both countries will suffer at the ballot box if they cozy up to Israel too much. There is still a lot of sympathy for Palestine worldwide."
Turkey's "grander" vision in the Middle East
Meanwhile, Tanchum's thoughts indicated that Iran would strengthen Turkish-Israeli strategic partnership, as he mentioned Turkey's plan to build a military base in Qatar and to form a joint strategic cooperation council with Saudi Arabia. "Taken in this context, it becomes clear that the normalization of relations between Turkey and Israel is part of Ankara's grander vision to consolidate an effective bloc to counter-balance the expansion of Iranian hegemony," he said. Despite Iran and Turkey's clash of interests and that Tel Aviv and Riyadh have been holding meetings to cooperate against Iran, Uygur said Turkey would not enter an alliance with Israel and the Gulf against Iran for several reasons. He said, "Israel benefits from the situation as the Syrian crisis continues and it is worth noting that Israel carries out airstrikes in Syria through the acknowledgement of Russia."
Adib-Moghaddam pointend out that "Iran has tried to normalize relations with the GCC, and Turkey seeks allies and economic investment. All of these goals shouldn't be mutually exclusive," adding, "The region needs a viable, institutionalized security architecture that requires a positive mentality in foreign policy making."
Nasi partially agreed with the argument that Israel and Turkey would act against Iran together as she stated that "While Israel perceives Iran as an existential threat, Turkey tends to regard Iran both as a neighbor and a rival."
Both Nasi and Tanchum also touched upon the significance of energy. Nasi, mentioning the project to sell Israeli gas via Cyprus and Turkey, said, "Once the Cyprus issue is settled, energy cooperation between Israel and Turkey will not only benefit both countries economically, but also contribute to the security in the Mediterranean."
Tanchum said: "Turkey and Israel already engage in important trade relations and the export of Israeli gas to Turkey will only further enhance economic cooperation. Despite the deterioration in political relations between Turkey and Israel from 2009 to 2015, trade ties between the two nations continued to expand at a rapid rate." "The data from 2014 showed," he said, "the volume of bilateral trade between Turkey and Israel stood at $5.62 billion dollars, more than double the volume in 2009 [$2.6 billion]." "Israeli natural gas could help Turkey reduce its inordinate dependency on Russian imports for Turkey's domestic consumption. Moreover, Israeli natural gas could contribute to the long-term viability of the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) and therefore, Ankara's ambition to use TANAP to make Turkey the main the clearinghouse for Middle Eastern and Central Asian natural gas to reach Europe," he said. "Given sufficient domestic market reforms, Turkey could even become a regional energy hub, with all the economic benefits and political clout that being an energy hub entails," Tanchum added.
Experts indicate that as Israel increases cooperation with Gulf countries, it would want to ally with Turkey against Iran, leaving previous disputes behind. However, the differing approaches in relation to Iran and Turkey's sensitivity on the Palestinian issue, coupled with some multi-faceted regional issues and different energy deals, may make it difficult, if not impossible, to create an unconditional alliance. Yet, the next few years will likely witness better relations between Israel and Turkey, mostly due to the latter's potential to become an energy hub and its desire to limit Iran's influence in the neighborhood.