Turkey & Iran: Seeking to Expand Their Geopolitical Influence

Via Stratfor (subscription required), an interesting look at the dynamic relations between Iran and Turkey and the upcoming bilateral meetings between the two nations.  As the article notes

“…Both Turkey and Iran are on the rise. Until relatively recent times, both have been contained by various forces, most notably Iraq and the Soviet Union. Between the end of the Cold War and American defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, however, many restrictions on the power of both states evaporated. Both Turkey and Iran are looking for wider roles in their region. Both have grand imperial pasts. Both have ambitions. And both are somewhat oddballs in the world of geopolitics.

Most nations are oriented around a piece of flat, core territory where the nationality was not just born, but has entrenched itself. For France, Germany and Poland, that core is their respective portions of the Northern European Plain. The core territory of the United States is the coastal Atlantic strip east of the Appalachians. Argentina is centered on the bountiful flatlands around Buenos Aires. The defining territory of China comprises the fertile regions between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers.

Such flatness is critical to the development of a nation because the lack of internal geographic barriers allows the dominant culture to assimilate or eliminate groups that would dilute or challenge its power. Additionally, plains regions tend to boast river systems that allow thriving agricultural, transportation and trade opportunities that mountainous regions lack. Very few states count mountains as their core simply because mountains are difficult to pacify. It is very easy for dissident or minority groups to root themselves in such regions, and the writ of the state is often weak. Consequently, most mountainous states are defined not by success but by failure. Lebanon, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Laos come to mind.

iran and turkey

Turkey and Iran are different. Their core lands are mountainous regions — the Anatolian Peninsula for Asia Minor and the Zagros Mountains of Persia. Even though the Turks are not original descendants of their their Anatolian power base, they were able to secure their central lands when they swept in as conquerors a millennium ago and have since destroyed or assimilated most of the natives. The Persians ruled through a dizzyingly complex system of interconnected elites that succeeded in instilling a common Persian culture that extended somewhat beyond mere ethnicity, all while keeping the base of power in the Persians’ hands.

But that is where the similarities end. As these two states both return to prominence, it is almost inevitable that Turkey that will fare better than Iran, simply because the Turks enjoy the advantage of geography. Anatolia is a plateau surrounded by water on three sides and enjoys the blessing of the Golden Horn, which transforms the well-positioned city of Istanbul into one of the world’s best — and certainly most strategically located — ports. Turkey straddles Europe and Asia, the Balkans and the Islamic world, the former Soviet Union and the Mediterranean Basin. The result is a culture not only incredibly aware of international events, but one steeped in trade whether via its land connections or —by virtue of being a peninsula — maritime trade. Unsurprisingly, for a good chunk of the past 2,000 years, Anatolia — whether under the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines or most recently under the Turks themselves — has been at or near the center of human development.

By comparison, Iran got shortchanged. Although Iran has water on two sides, it has a minimal maritime tradition. Its plateau is a salt desert. The Caspian Sea is landlocked and boasts no major population centers aside from Baku — the capital of another country with a hostile ethnic group. The Persian Gulf coast of Iran is not only lightly populated, but it is easy for powers on the gulf’s southern coast to block Iranian water access to the wider world. While Anatolia has a number of regions that are well watered — even though it does not have many rivers — Persia is predominately an arid region.

The Turks also enjoy demographic advantages. Only one-fifth of Turkey’s population is non-Turkish, while roughly half of Iran is non-Persian. Iran requires a large army simply to maintain rule at home, while Turkey has the relative freedom to expend resources on power projection tools such as an air force and navy. The difference shines through in their respective economies as well. Despite having nearly identical populations in terms of size, Iran’s economy is only two-fifths the size of Turkey’s. Even in the battle of ideologies, Turkey retains the advantage. The Arab majority in the region prefer Turkey — a fellow Sunni power — to take the lead in managing regional affairs, whereas Shiite Persian Iran is the historical rival of the Arab world.

Iran may be junior to Turkey in a geopolitical contest, but Iran is still a power that Turkey has to take into consideration. In a major historical reversal, the Iranians have regained influence over Iraq with the rise of a Shia-dominated government that they had lost to the Turks in the mid-1550s, bringing the two powers closer into contact. When two expansionary powers interact closely — as Turkey and Iran are now — they can be either driven to conflict or come to an understanding regarding their respective spheres of influence. In the present day, there are probably more causes for cooperation than conflict between Ankara and Tehran. Iran’s westward expansion gives Turkey and Iran good reasons to cooperate in order to contain Iraq’s Kurdish population in the north. Moreover, Turkey’s bid to become a major energy transit state would improve significantly through a better relationship with Iran.

Given this dynamic, Gul’s upcoming trip to Iran is likely to be the first of many. The Turks and the Persians have much to sort out on the bilateral level as each seeks to expand their geopolitical influence.”

This entry was posted on Saturday, February 28th, 2009 at 9:12 am and is filed under Iran, Turkey.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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