The year 2019 marks 40 years to the Islamic Republic of Iran. On February 11, 1979, the Islamic revolution won in Iran. The last shahinshah of the Persian Empire, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown. The 2500-year history of the Persian Monarchy came to a close.
Undoubtedly, the Islamic revolution in Iran marked a significant chapter in the history of the 20th century and can in fact be ranked on par with the Bolshevik October Revolution in Russia, which, like the Iranian one, turned the whole country “upside down” and to this day continues to affect political processes in the region and worldwide.
The unquestionable leader of this revolution, who had been planning it for many years in exile, was Ayatollah Seyid Ruholla Mostafavi Mousavi Khomeini. He devoted his whole life to the struggle against the shah regime which repeatedly subjected him to arrest and persecution. In 1964, Ayatollah Khomeini was expelled from Iran and spent the next fifteen years in exile. For almost a year he lived in Turkey, another 13 years in Iraq and almost half a year near Paris.
However, throughout all those years Khomeini never stopped the political struggle, influencing the mentality of Iranians from abroad. In exile, Khomeini stepped up his opposition activities devising the theoretical foundations for a new Islamic state and at the same time preparing the Iranians for the overthrow of the Shah. His associates recorded his sermons and speeches on an audio tape and secretly shipped them to Iran to be distributed in Iranian mosques there.
The population of Iran knew Khomeini fairly well and were aware of his views on the domestic situation in the country and his plans for the country’s further development. His views were pretty radical. In his speeches, Khomeini lashed out at Shah’s leadership, the “comprador bourgeoisie,” the United States, and Israel. The USSR, as a major Communist power, came under fierce criticism as well. In one of his speeches, he said: “America is worse than England, England is worse than the Soviet Union, and the Soviets are worse than both of them !!!”
Whether accepted or not, Khomeini was in his own way a unique religious figure and politician. He was the one who put forward the idea of “velayat faqih”, that is, the principle of a sacred and politicized expression of religious spirituality, aimed at the absolute power of a fair legal theologian who would represent the highest level of spiritual Shiite authority – “marja e taglid”.
It was this principle that Khomeini chose to go into the basis of Khomeinism (or “neo-Shiism”) ideology he had elaborated and the principle of state-building. He combined Islam and politics, his major goal being a complete Islamization of the whole society by forcibly extending the sphere of influence of religion to embrace other sections, which in other societies are occupied by ideology, while simultaneously turning them into an instrument of political struggle. The slogan “Our religion is our ideology, our ideology is our policy” was put by the Ayatollah into practice. Thus, the boundaries between religious, ideological, and political activities in Iran were largely blurred and make up a single whole at present.
Naturally, comparison is always fraught with subjectivism. Nevertheless, Ayatollah Khomeini can be compared with Joseph Stalin. And not only because both were markedly ascetic, both expressed their thoughts simply and dogmatically, so those thoughts were clear to everyone, even the uneducated, both devoted themselves to fierce political struggle and both came to power, bringing an countless number of victims to the altar of victory.
Khomeini’s Islamic revolutionary zeal did not subside after the fall of the Shah. Moreover, he did all he could to clear the way for a new, Islamic dictatorship under the republican slogans. The Shah’s institutes of power were destroyed in a matter of months.
On April 1, 1979, a referendum was held with only one question: “Do you support the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran?” And the majority said yes. On that day, Iran, which marked the 2500th anniversary of the monarchy only a few years before, became an Islamic republic.
In December the same year, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran was adopted, which stipulated the supremacy of Islamic principles on the basis of Khomeinism.
The year 1980 marked the beginning of the rapid process of formation and institutionalization of the organs of the new theocratic power in the country. Khomeini was an Islamic innovator who put his idea of “velayat faqih” into practice.
This principle formed the foundation of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Like in any republic, the Constitution of the IRI proclaims the separation of the legislative (parliament), executive (government) and judicial branches of government. However, above all these branches is the supreme leader of the country, selected by a narrow circle of Islamic clerical experts from among the highest-ranking Shiite clergy. He has the control of all kinds of power in Iran – the spiritual, state, political and military. As the country’s spiritual leader, he is called Faqih, the head of the Shiite community; as a nationwide political leader – Rahbar – the head of the country; as a military leader, the Supreme Commander of all Iranian armed forces. Naturally, the title of a supreme leader went to Ayatollah Khomeini.
At first, the supreme leader used revolution sympathizers in his own interests. In a peculiar situation of anti-Shah struggle, Khomeini turned out to be an ingenious politician who was able to successfully play with the left and the right, balancing between them, juggling them, elevating some, and then others. But all this was to come to an end.
Starting from the summer of 1980 and perhaps until 1984, Ayatollah Khomeini removed the “companions of the revolution” that stood in his way. That is, those forces that backed him but were alien to him.
All those who disagreed with the new ideology he had brought in faced the same lot.
Among them were equally authoritative religious figures who did not agree with the idea of
“velayat faqih”, with the unification of Islam and politics. Among them was Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari. He and his associates were not repressed but deprived of the opportunity to act politically. They were put under house arrest. Some ayatollahs left Iran, some simply fell silent. Gathered in the city of Qum (the center of Shiism) they kept silent, without being engaged in any political activity against Ayatollah Khomeini.
But such a “humane” attitude on the part of the new authorities was not for everyone who disagreed. As any revolution, the Iranian revolution was accompanied by revolutionary terror. The wheel of repression was spinning.
Effectively using the Islamic Revolutionary Committees, the newly formed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Iranian Hezbollah (Party of Allah), the new Shiite leadership of Iran, led by Khomeini, carried out a series of repressions. The repression campaign was launched on June 14, 1980, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a decree on the “Islamic cultural revolution” which proclaimed persecution of dissidents or a “witch hunt”. By the end of 1984, the total number of those executed in Iran was estimated at 40,000.
A powerful resistance to the Khomeini regime came from People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI). Founded in the sixties to fight the Shah regime, it occasionally resorted to terrorist methods. From the ideological point of view, the organization based its strategy on Islamism with Marxism.
Members of PMOI did a lot for the Islamic revolution, actively opposing any attempts to restore the monarchy. At first, they were on the side of Khomeini. But Ayatollah Khomeini, having sensed competitors in them, began to exert a strong pressure on them. As a result, the Mojahedin were removed from government, repressed (more than 3 thousand members were subjected to reprisals), and went into hiding.
The last force Khomeini struck at was the People’s Party of Iran (PPI), that is, pro-Soviet Communists, who supported Khomeini’s anti-Shah struggle in the first revolutionary years. Thus, in January 1979, PPI General Secretary N. Kiyanuri spoke favorably about Khomeini, stating that “scientific socialism and Islam do not contract one another,” and that “Communists and Khomeini can go together almost to the end”, “infinitely helping and assisting each other”. However, this did not stop the Ayatollah. More than 5,000 members and supporters of the party were arrested. From TV screens people could see high-profile trials against the left in which PPI leaders admitted that they had been fulfilling orders from the Kremlin and declared themselves agents of Moscow.
Affecting the nature of repressions in those years was the situation on the fronts of the Iran-Iraq war (1980 – 1988). All opposition representatives were viewed as traitors who were allegedly acting in the interests of Saddam Hussein.
The suppression of the opposition, including, above all, Khomeini’s former supporters of the anti-Shah struggle, was accompanied by the Islamization of all spheres of life: political, economic, social, cultural, legal, and military. Naturally, the repressive measures of the Islamic authorities caused massive — legal and illegal — emigration from Iran. More than three million Iranians left their country. By the end of 1983 dissent had been suppressed across the country, so Islamic rule could be considered valid. The Islamic Revolution won. The Islamic Republic of Iran became a political reality.
The internal political struggle in the IRI continued after the defeat of brothers in anti-revolutionary struggle — both in parliament, the Majlis, and among various political groups. Representatives of those groups did not question Khomeini’s course but among themselves they had conflicting views on how best to implement it. Their differences were substantial enough. However, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, remained above those frictions and never took sides. When he spoke, it became clear what everyone should do.
Ayatollah Khomeini continued to enjoy immense authority even after his death. In 1989, when the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, passed away on June 3, the author of the obituary article was in Iran. Mourning ceremonies that were held throughout the country are difficult to describe or impart in words. All of Tehran was clad in black: men in black shirts, women in black hijabs. Tehran is known for its heat. In an attempt to make it less of an ordeal for the mourners, volunteers and firefighters pour water on them, as they walk in grief in an endless stream that fills all the space in the streets and squares. Nearly all residents of Iran, several million people, came to Tehran to pay their last respects to Rahbar.
Khomeini’s ideas continue to form the basis of the political doctrine of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which determines the external and internal policies of the clerical leadership. An important place in the doctrine is occupied by the principles of Islamic internationalism, developed by Ayatollah Khomeini and his associates; the principles of Muslim unity; ideas about the special mission of the Muslims; about the messiah role of Islam and Iran; the theory about the permanent nature of the Islamic revolution; about the antagonism between “the oppressed (the destitute)” and “the oppressors (the arrogant)”; the theory of the “bipolar world” and the division of the world along the South-North axis. The latter theory was developed by Ayatollah Khomeini and his associates on the basis of the Islamic dogma that divides the world into “areas of faith” and “areas of war” and is designed to meet global changes and serve the strategic goals of the Iranian policy.
The leading role in this Islamic revolutionary process should be assumed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is set on forcing its religious and ideological theories on the rest of the world. Here lies the main political core of Khomeinism of the official ideology of Iran – the “export of the Islamic revolution”. Along with it being part of official ideology, this concept is a legal one, since it is enshrined in the Constitution of Iran.
Ayatollah Khomeini positioned himself no more than a global Islamic leader with radical views. In his speech in March 1980, he said: “We must work to incite revolution all over the world and we must preclude any thoughts of abandoning it. Iran not only refuses to recognize any differences between Muslim countries, it also acts as an intercessor for all oppressed peoples. We must make clear our stance on powers and superpowers and voice our protest to them, despite the difficulties that we experience. Our attitude to the world is dictated by our beliefs».
From time to time, Iranian officials recall about the “global and historic importance” of the Islamic revolution. Thus, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005 – 2013), speaking at a ceremony in honor of the Iranian Basij militia in December 2008, said: “You all understand that the Islamic revolution was a movement that cannot be confined to the territory of Iran. This movement was aimed not only at creating a new system, but also at materializing the promises of God. The Islamic revolution was a fundamental and decisive movement for all humanity, following the path of divine prophets ”. And this naturally gives rise to questions from most politicians and countries that do not share these radical views.
Of course, 30 years after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic of Iran has undergone significant changes. The current regime in Iran, which came into being thanks to the Islamic revolution, is constantly evolving and this evolution, proceeding under the motto of the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini, has been spiraling.
The eight-year Iran-Iraq war (1980 – 1988) undermined the economy of Iran. The “Tawhid economy» model developed by the Khomeini team while still in exile (the Islamic analogue of the War Communism economy) could not save the country. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who became president of the Islamic Republic of Iran after the death of Khomeini (1989-1997), said good-bye to the “Tawhid economy” and made a sharp turn towards the market. He initiated economic market reforms, which made it possible to liberate the Iranian business and overcome the post-war crisis. It dealt a serious blow to the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The next president, Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005), while pursuing economic reforms, introduced elements of liberalism into domestic and foreign policy, which triggered an outrage from the radicals. And this is understandable: although carried out under the slogans of Khomeini’s teachings, the social and political reforms (whether their architects wanted it or not) inevitably took the country and society further and further away from the general concept of Khomeinism. The conservative-minded Iranian clergy could not let it happen. They wanted restoration of the Khomeinist regime, they needed a change in the policies of the two presidents to maintain their power.
President Ahmadinejad was expected to fulfill the mission of returning to the ideology of Khomeini. This he did with great enthusiasm, bringing the nuclear conflict on the verge of a war with the United States and Israel, and throwing the economy into the abyss of the most severe international sanctions.
President Hassan Rouhani (2013 – present), a liberal-reformist politician, saved the situation. However, the provocative policy of President Trump towards Iran and the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal have given Iranian conservatives and radicals a new chance to return to the ideological principles of the time of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Thus, the Islamic Republic of Iran has gone through various stages of its development: revolutionary terror, war, a thaw, and a cold spell. But it would be quite correct to assert that the evolution of the Islamic Republic of Iran boils down to expanding or narrowing the limits of the permissible across a vast variety of dogmatic political, economic, and social restrictions. At the same time, all evolutionary processes in the Islamic Republic of Iran have proceeded under the portrait of Khomeini, with quotes from his works, to his, in fact, personality cult.
Ayatollah Khomeini created the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has become a kind of laboratory, in which political Islam for the first time in global practices has turned into a means of resolving problems that confront the Islamic civilization in the present-day world.
Khomeinism never restricted itself to Iran. The theory and political practice of Ayatollah Khomeini have in many ways encouraged politicians in a number of Islamic countries to use political Islam for their own purposes. Over time, there appeared special terms that reflect the essence of Khomeini’s policy – the “Khomeini effect”, the “Khomeini model” and even the “Khomeini world plan.” But the practice of pursuing one of the basic principles of Khomeinism – the export of the Islamic revolution on the model of Iran – alarmed many Islamic (and not only Islamic) countries, particularly those in which a significant number of Muslims are Shiites. But what is clear is that Khomeinism never developed to become a global doctrine or a major political practice, neither in the region, nor elsewhere in the world.
First published in our partner International Affairs
The US-Iran deal and its implications for the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe
The ongoing meetings between the US and Iran since the beginning of April in Vienna show new signs of progress. Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s chief negotiator and Deputy Foreign Minister, in the last days suggested that a ‘new understanding’ is being shaped. Any possibility of reaching an agreement and the US returning to the deal once abandoned by former US President Donald Trump, will result in a new state of affairs in wider Eurasia. New opportunities may also emerge for the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe creating new sources for security and development.
The nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between Iran and six world powers – the USA, Russia, China, France, the UK and Germany – back in 2015 was envisaged to bring Iran’s nuclear enrichment process under stricter international inspection and monitoring. In response, the US and other participants of the deal pledged to lift sanctions imposed on Iran.
However, in May 2018 the process was mostly undermined by former US President Donald Trump, whose administration decided to withdraw from the deal. The withdrawal was followed by a new wave of sanctions and targeted assassinations of a few prominent Iranians, among them General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, killed by an American drone strike in Iraq in January 2020. All the efforts of the Trump administration to dismantle the Iranian regime and its ambitions resulted in the resumption of the nuclear enrichment program. Upon his election, President Joe Biden expressed his sincere interest in returning to the deal. This led to the recent negotiations between Tehran and Washington in the Austrian capital.
The fact that Iran and the US are mutually interested in the restoration of the JCPOA can be explained in a number of ways. The most apparent aspect is the US return to the international arena which it, to some extent, left under Trump’s isolationist policy. The American active engagement in the nuclear deal with Iran is aimed at various targets. In reviving the deal, Washington may hinder the hardliners’ return to power in Iran during the upcoming presidential elections this summer. Besides, Iran is becoming a regional bastion for China, which uses Iran’s economic vulnerabilities to maximise its gains. Finally, the rapprochement of Turkey and Russia creates another danger for US interests in the region, prompting it to reconsider its politics in the Middle East. In other words, the US and Iran need this recovery in relations for reasons stemming from the core principle of Realism, the balance of power; in order not to allow dramatic shifts in the geopolitical landscape, not only in the Middle East but also in central Eurasia.
Russia’s strengthened stance in the South Caucasus following the second Karabakh war can primarily be explained by its emerging relations with Turkey, which were described by Russia’s chief diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, as ‘sui generis co-operation and competition’. This odd couple could dismantle hopes of peaceful settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by the US, France and Russia. The Russian-Turkish duo have created the vast majority of the broader region’s flash points ranging from Libya to Syria and Karabakh. Russia’s rapprochement with Turkey is in Moscow’s favour and is aimed at disuniting NATO. On the other hand, Turkey’s bold politics speak about its global ambitions and desire to set its own course. Both behaviours are in direct contradiction of American vital interests, which is reflected in harsh criticism of the Kremlin and Ankara. In the case of Moscow, this reached a historic post-Cold War peak – Biden’s recent scandalous statement on Putin, calling him a ‘killer’, has inflamed relations between the two countries.
The USA is actively supporting any activities aimed at decreasing the influence of Russia and China in various parts of the world. One of such projects is the so-called ‘Three Seas Initiative’. Created in 2015 by the presidents of Croatia and Poland, this project brings together the twelve states of Eastern and Central Europe located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas. The main goal is to counter the growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region, which is less developed than Western Europe and more open to foreign direct investments. Aimed at developing infrastructure, energy co-operation and digitalisation, the initiative seeks to create ”North-South” energy and infrastructure corridors. Given the US ambitions to reduce the region’s dependence on Russian energy supplies, the nuclear deal with Iran opens new opportunities. The fact that the Chinese Silk Road is heading to Europe via Central Asia and Turkey, it could be better to allow Iran to export its gas through Armenia and Georgia to Eastern Europe under the Black Sea. Firstly, this would solve the European dependence on Russian energy supplies. The export of natural resources has been traditionally used by the Kremlin as a foreign policy instrument. The reduction of dependence on Russian commodities will ultimately reshape the Kremlin’s behaviour abroad making it more predictable and constructive. The fear that this may plunge Russia into China’s orbit, turning it a puppet state for Beijing, are groundless given the Russian bear’s historical caution of the Chinese dragon. The second important contribution of the Iranian pipeline will be to increase the energy security of Ukraine, which is trying to integrate itself into European infrastructure and move come closer to EU standards at the same time as coping with Russian energy blackmail.
The Iranian pipeline is able to solve the economic and energy independence of the Eastern and Central European EU member states which participate in the ‘Three Seas Initiative’. It may liberalise the energy market of the region and will boost economic development, reducing its gap with Western Europe.
Finally, the US-Iranian possible rapprochement may also change the state of affairs in the South Caucasus region. The increased Russian presence and active Turkish involvement in the region are aimed at keeping other external actors – and first and foremost the West – out of it. In the long run, this will threaten Georgia’s European dreams in the same way it has harmed Armenia’s democratic aspirations. Alternatively, the vision of being a transit route for Iranian energy pipelines to Europe, whilst also helping to connect India and Eastern Europe, could elevate the security of Georgia and Armenia to a new level.
Therefore, the US-Iran agreement is essential for restoring the balance of power in the region, in order not to allow the main competitors to maximise their gains. This deal promises new opportunities for Central Eurasia, creating room for manoeuvre for the region’s small and fragile countries.
The Mediterranean: Will Turkey be successful in pulling Egypt to its side?
The Mediterranean acts as a channel connecting Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The region has, however, become a bone of contention due to varying political setups, religions and cultural values, economic resources, and the existence of crisis situations. The maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece is highly contentious, developing new complexities that worries the international community. Greece prefersinternational arbitrationwhile Turkey favors the option of bilateral negotiationsconstituting asthe main cause of friction between the two countries.
Historically, root of the crisis also lies in conflicting claims by Turkey and Greece concerning maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), threatening Ankara’s “Blue Homeland”doctrine. To further aggravate the situation, the dispute has now been intertwined withdisputes in the eastern Mediterranean among Turkey and a coalition of countries including France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates that are doused in geopolitical tensions, energy disputes and Libyan conflict.
Gas discoveries in eastern Mediterranean have increased Turkey’s greed for hydrocarbon exploration. Turkey aims to solve its longstanding economic challenges and reduce its energy dependency due to which the country has increased its energy-related exploration activities in the region resulting in a major gas discovery thus shaping the region towards resource competition. Moreover, Turkey seeks to establish itself as an energy hub for Europe and has signed several oil and gas pipeline deals with Azerbaijan, Iraq, Iran, and Russia. However, its aspirations have significantly remained unsuccessful, and the gas discoveries have deepened its concerns of being left out from the region’s emerging energy and security order due to the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF).
Conflict in the Mediterranean has unwittingly pushed Libya into a proxy war. Scuffle between Libyan National Army (LNA) and Government of National Accord (GNA) has pushed Turkey to increase its support for GNA by sending troops and weapons to Libya which is a move directly affecting the ongoing situation in the region. GNA signing its EEZ agreement with Turkey while Greece turning to LNA and signing an agreement with Egypt have contributed to exacerbating the dispute. Not only this, but major European powers have shown keen interest in the region that patently require Turkey’s support in terms of migration and counterterrorism. If the conflict between the Turkish-backed GNA and the LNA stabilizes, this would result in an ordered flow of migrants to Europe.
Moreover, Europeans do not wish to abandon a 2016 German-brokered deal between Turkey and the European Union (EU) that allows Turkey to maintain a considerable control over refugee movements into Europe. On counterterrorism, France to fight against the terrorism in southern Libya and Benghazi, allied with Haftar against Turkey, despite recognizing the GNA’s sovereignty. France has developed security partnerships with UAE and Egypt, who are opponents of Turkey in the region.
Egypt’s possession of two liquefication facilities, making the country act as both an exporter and re-exporter of LNG including a potential Cyprus-Egypt pipeline beneficial to Egypt in terms of economic stability, and help establish itself as a regional power. Cyprus-Egypt pipeline will allow Cyprus to export gas from the Aphrodite gas field to Egypt for liquefaction and Egypt would then reexport LNG to the European market. Turkey, however, argues that revenue generated from the process must be shared with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TNRC). Turkey’s continuation on the belligerent course will bring consequences for Egypt making its support for Greece more prominent. Turkey also stands with Mediterranean cooperation through initiatives like the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum that focuses on exploitation and regional energy resource sale.
Turkey is keen to become a regional gas trade hub thus looks forward to the initiative of a Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) which transfers from Azerbaijan to Europe through Turkey. Reducing the region’s reliance on Russian gas could certainly achieve the goals. Talks between Israel and Turkey of a pipeline from Israel to Europe were also initiated, however relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated following Erdogan blatantly supporting Palestine. This led Israel to work with Cyprus and Greece on the EastMed pipeline, stemming in devaluation of the Trans-Anatolian pipeline.
Most of the Middle Eastern countries have recalibratedtheir foreign policy following Joe Biden’s presidential win in the United States. Similarly, both Turkey and Egypt have begun to revise their foreign policies as well. The two countries have initiated a series of new diplomatic dialogue including Turkey and Greece signing a maritime delimitation agreement in August 2020.Nonetheless Egypt did not accept Greece’s thesis of having claims over islands in the south of Aegean Sea and it also announced a new oil and gas exploration bid with taking Turkey’s coordinates of the continental shelf into consideration. Moreover, Egypt began to change its Libya policy and improve relations with GNA. Turkey has stated that it is willing to negotiate dialogue with Egypt and focus on common interests.
Understanding the new developments, it is suggested to continue to alleviate tensions as the two countries enjoy same moral values at cultural level, given their shared past and historical ties. That is only possible if the expansionist pan-Islamistproject stops with Erdogan and does not continue with future Turkish governments. Cairo and Ankara must move together on the issues concerning Palestine, Libyan conflict, and the eastern Mediterranean. Despite possible pressure from the Democrats in the Biden administration, Egypt seems reluctant to consider convergence on Islamic synthesisand integration of Muslim brotherhood. Complete normalization of relations between the two sides may take time therefore to establish trust in one another, all parties must take certain confidence-building steps.
Israel and Turkey in search of solutions
Twelve and eleven years have elapsed since the Davos and Mavi Marmara incidents, respectively, and Turkey-Israel relations are undergoing intense recovery efforts. They are two important Eastern neighbours and influence regional stability.
Currently, as in the past, relations between the two countries have a structure based on realpolitik, thus pursuing a relationship of balance/interest, and hinge around the Palestinian issue and Israel’s position as the White House’s privileged counterpart. However, let us now briefly summarise the history of Turkish-Jewish relations.
The first important event that comes to mind when mentioning Jews and Turks is that when over 200,000 Jews were expelled by the Spanish Inquisition in 1491, the Ottoman Empire invited them to settle in its territory.
Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel in 1949. Israel’s first diplomatic Mission to Turkey was opened on January 7, 1950 but, following the Suez crisis in 1956, relations were reduced to the level of chargé d’affaires. In the second Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Turkey chose not to get involved and it did not allow relations to break off completely.
The 1990s saw a positive trend and development in terms of bilateral relations. After the second Gulf War in 1991 -which, as you may recall, followed the first Iraqi one of 1980-1988 in which the whole world was against Iran (with the only exception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Syria, Libya and the moral support of Enver Hoxha’s Albania) – Turkey was at the centre of security policy in the region. In that context, Turkey-Israel relations were seriously rekindled.
In 1993, Turkey upgraded diplomatic relations with Israel to ambassadorial level. The signing of the Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel led to closer relations. The 1996 military cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which provided significant logistical and intelligence support to both sides.
In the 2000s, there was a further rapprochement with Israel, due to the “zero problems with neighbours” policy promoted by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party. I still remember issue No. 3/1999 of the Italian review of geopolitics “Limes” entitled “Turkey-Israel, the New Alliance”.
In 2002, an Israeli company undertook the project of modernising twelve M-60 tanks belonging to the Turkish armed forces. In 2004, Turkey agreed to sell water to Israel from the Manavgat River.
Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Israel in 2005 was a turning point in terms of mediation between Palestine and Israel and further advancement of bilateral relations. In 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas spoke at the Turkish Grand National Assembly one day apart. High-level visits from Israel continued.
On December 22, 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to Ankara and met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In that meeting, significant progress was made regarding Turkey’s mediation between Israel and Syria.
Apart from the aforementioned incidents, the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations occurred five days after the above stated meeting, i.e. Operation “Cast Lead” against Gaza on December 27, 2008. After that event, relations between the two sides were never the same as before.
Recently, however, statements of goodwill have been made by both countries to normalise political relations. In December 2020, President Erdoğan stated he wanted to improve relations with Israel and said: “It is not possible for us to accept Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinian territories. This is the point in which we differ from Israel – otherwise, our heart desires to improve our relations with it as well”.
In its relations with Israel, Turkey is posing the Palestinian issue as a condition. When we look at it from the opposite perspective, the Palestinian issue is a vital matter for Israel. It is therefore a severe obstacle to bilateral relations.
On the other hand, many regional issues such as Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and some security issues in the region require the cooperation of these two key countries. For this reason, it is clear that both sides wish at least to end the crisis, reduce rhetoric at leadership level and focus on cooperation and realpolitik areas.
In the coming months, efforts will certainly be made to strike a balance between these intentions and the conditions that make it necessary to restart bilateral relations with Israel on an equal footing. As improved relations with Israel will also positively influence Turkey’s relations with the United States.
Turkey seeks to avoid the USA and the EU imposing sanctions that could go so far as to increase anti-Western neo-Ottoman rhetoric, while improved relations with Israel could offer a positive outcome not only to avoid the aforementioned damage, but also to solve the Turkish issues related to Eastern Mediterranean, territorial waters, Libya and Syria. Turkey has no intention of backing down on such issues that it deems vital. Quite the reverse. It would like to convey positive messages at the level of talks and Summits.
Another important matter of friction between Turkey and Israel is the use of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean reserves between Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus (Nicosia).
This approach is excluding Turkey. The USA and the EU also strongly support the current situation (which we addressed in a previous article) for the additional reason that France has been included in the equation.
The alignment of forces and fronts in these maritime areas were also widely seen during the civil war in Libya, where Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, as well as other players such as Russia, Italy, etc. came into the picture.
Ultimately, a point of contact between Turkey and Israel is the mediation role that the former could play in relations between Iran and Israel, especially after the improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad – which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 -the Turkish Foreign Minister stated that the U.S. action would increase insecurity and instability in the region. He also reported that Turkey was worried about rising tensions between the United States and Iran that could turn Iraq back into an area of conflict to the detriment of peace and stability in the region. There was also a condolence phone call from President Erdoğan to Iranian President Rouhani, urging him to avoid a conflictual escalation with the United States following the airstrike.
Consequently, it is in the Turkish President’s interest to maintain an open channel with Iran, so that he himself can soften the mutual tensions between Israel and Iran, and – in turn – Israeli diplomacy can influence President Biden’s choices, albeit less pro-Israel than Donald Trump’s.
Turkey is known to have many relationship problems with the United States – especially after the attempted coup of July 15-16, 2016 and including the aforementioned oil issue – and realises that only Israel can resolve the situation smoothly.
In fact, Israel-USA relations are not at their best as they were under President Trump. President Erdoğan seems to be unaware of this fact, but indeed the Turkish President knows that the only voice the White House can hear is Israel’s, and certainly not the voice of the Gulf monarchies, currently at odds with Turkey.
Israel keeps a low profile on the statements made by President Erdoğan with regard to the Palestinians- since it believes them to be consequential – as well as in relation to a series of clearly anti-Zionist attitudes of the Turkish people.
We are certain, however, that President Erdoğan’s declarations of openness and Israeli acquiescence will surely yield concrete results.
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