A visit of a Turkish President in Tehran is not an ordinary, matter of fact event, and particularly now. It is not so because of the Kurdish referendum in Iraq and its implications, though it is the subject uppermost on the minds of the leaders of Iran and Turkey these days. It is because now, maybe for the first time in modern Middle East history, two non-Arab powers seem to be the final and decisive arbiters of the region’s politics, henceforth also of inter-Arab relations. A dramatic indication of the weakness of the Arab world, surely in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, but not because of it. This Arab Spring itself was the result of the weakness of the Arab state system as of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the post WWI arrangements .That said, it is also the case, that the visit of the leader of the largest, strongest Sunni Muslim state in the Middle East, in the capital of the largest and strongest Shi’ite state, does not signal that there is no Shi’ite -Sunni rift, rather that it is mainly between Arab Sunnis and Shi’ites, with the outside and crucial Iranian involvement. It is to be remembered, that while the Sunni Ottoman state never recognized the Shi’ites within its borders as a separate legitimate religious community, as it did with Jews and Christians, for example[The Millet System], it lived in peace with the Shi’ite Safavid Iranian state since the treaty of 1639. History is important in the Middle East, and while it is not always understood in the West, it is highly significant in the region itself. In Cairo and Riyad, as well as in Damascus and Baghdad, in fact many other Arab capitals, leaderships and citizens view the possibility of an emerging Turkish-Iranian axis with suspicion and concern.
An axis maybe an exaggerated term, but the two states have some significant interests in common, enough to forge, at least, a temporary alliance. They both resent the Saudi attempt to isolate Qatar, they both support Hamas in the Palestinian arena, in fact, they both seem to be the leaders of the anti-Israel campaign in the Muslim world, thus trying to turn the conflict from an Arab-Palestinian-Israeli one, into a classic religious affair, as otherwise what really is the interest of two non-Arab countries, with no shared border with Israel, to position themselves as the torch bearers of the Palestinians? Then there is the conflict in Syria, where after years of being on opposing sides, Iran on that of Assad, Turkey on that of the Sunni rebels, they may have a common interest now-sharing the spoils of the collapse of central government in Damascus, in fact , the Syrian state. Whereas Iran maintains its grip over Assad in Damascus and other parts of Syria, they were ready to give Turkey its share in the Sunni Idlib region, possibly also in Aleppo and the Euphrates region in the East. That division of power and influence in Syria, is in itself a vivid reminder of the weakness of the Arab world. We talk Syria here, the mother country of Arab nationalism, the birth place of the Pan-Arab Ba’th Party, the heart of Arabism [Kalb ul Uruba], as was the prevalent credo of generations of Syrians. However, also when dealing with Syria, but much more so with regard to Iraq, it is the Kurdish issue, which is Erdogan’s and Rohani’s main concern.
The fact, that the Kurdish referendum is of such importance to these two countries is a sign of weakness. Iran is slightly over 50% Iranian, with multiple ethnic minorities comprising the rest of the population, and among them the Kurds are also a religious minority[Sunnis], and in Turkey the Kurds number 15 million at least, almost 20% of the population. Kurdish irredentism is the common fear of the two states, not any worry for the territorial integration of the Iraqi state. The signs are, that the two countries plan a military venture against the Kurds, not really trusting the Iraqis to do it. The Turkish Chief of Staff, General Akar preceded his president, coming to Tehran few days ago. There are reports about the amassing of troops along the Iraqi borders, but then there is brinkmanship , psychological warfare ,intimidation tactics and actual war. It is clearly the intention of the two regional powers to cow the Kurds and force them into submission without battle. Do they really want to invade Iraq? Maybe they will have to, depending on the Kurdish reaction, but also on American policy. The Kurdish leader Barazani seems steadfast,and the Americans while objecting the referendum, may not be happy to see an Iranian-Turkish assault. The very talk though about such a scenario is another indication of the weakness of the Arabs. So where is Iraq in all that.
Wars like the one that may be contemplated by the Turks and Iranians may look a safe bet , but even a very brief glance at recent Iraqi and Iranian history, the American invasion of 2003 and before, the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-1988 should signal to Erdogan and Rohani, that they may be playing with fire.