Sunday, December 23, 2012

Mounting Tensions Between Turkey and Iran

by Sudhanshu Tripathi

In the already tense and volatile West Asia/Middle East region, a major confrontation has been brewing since early this week between Turkey and Iran due to a recent decision by the government of Turkey to seek Patriot missiles from the NATO powers for deployment along the borders of Syria. 

The decision has led to serious disruption in their prevailing mutual ties which were quite close -- Iran has been a reliable partner of Turkey in recent years. This was evident from the cancellation of President Ahmadinejad's scheduled visit on the previous Monday to Konya, Turkey, where he was to participate, on the invitation of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogen, in the anniversary of the death of the 13th century Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi. 

Just before this event, Iran's armed force chief, General Hassan Firouzabadi, harshly criticised the role of Turkey in connection with the missile deployment. "Each one of these Patriots is a black mark on the world map, and is meant to cause a world war. They are making plans for a world war, and this is very dangerous for the future of humanity and for the future of Europe itself," warned the general, seeming to conjure images of the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, cause by deployment of missiles in Cuba by the then USSR, leading to a showdown with the USA. 

According to some analysts, Iran is worried because, once the Patriot anti-missile and anti-aircraft batteries are installed, Turkey -- free from threat of Syrian air and missile strikes -- would be emboldened to escalate support for the armed Syrian opposition. This would, in turn, pose a grave threat to the survivability of the pro-Iranian government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. It was therefore unsurprising that Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi followed up General Firouzabadi's warning with an unambiguous statement in support of Mr. Assad, asserting that Iran would do everything in its power to thwart foreign efforts aimed at ensuring "regime change in Syria". In fact, Iran considers Syria as a lynchpin of the "axis of resistance" against Israel, which also includes the Lebanese Hizbollah and the Palestinian Hamas. 

Further, sections of the Russian intelligentsia are of the view that the deployment of Patriot missiles are a greater threat to Iran than to Syria. Russia's Kommarsant daily quoted a Russian diplomatic source as saying: "Turkey has explained its request to NATO as exclusively related to its need to defend itself from a possible attack from the Syrian army. But there could be a second motivation for this action, which is a preparation for military strike against Iran." 

As it is, the six Patriot batteries being drawn from NATO members Germany, Netherlands and the U.S. will lead to the accompanying deployment at Syria's doorstep of around 400 German troops, 360 Dutch soldiers and another 400 U.S. servicemen thereby enhancing, Turkey's war capability to a significant level. In fact, the militarisation of the border, and the threat it poses to Syria and Iran, appears to be generating a momentum for closer ties between Moscow and Teheran. While talking with NATO's Secretary-General Anders Fog Rasmussen, the Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergei Lavarov warned that any "provocation may trigger a very serious conflict."

Against this backdrop, Turkey's Patriot missile deployment program will obviously escalate tensions between the two prominent neighbours with a likely scenario of close relations between Iran and Russia, thereby putting strains on the hitherto prevailing balance of power among countries in the West Asia region. This will motivate the U.S. to vigorously pursue its national interests by forging closer ties with Middle Eastern and Gulf states. The stakes are as high for the U.S. as they are for Russia.

Sudhanshu Tripathi


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