What is behind Erdoğan’s strong support for Tehran?

As the largest anti-government protests in Iran in nearly a decade wind down, its neighbour Turkey has voiced support for the Iranian government.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had taken an “appropriate stance” against the demonstrators and said the protests had been instigated abroad. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu cautioned against foreign intervention in the protests, in a not-so-subtle hint at U.S. involvement.

This comes against the backdrop of recently increased cooperation between Ankara and Tehran. In an about-turn, the two countries are now working together in Syria after last year’s Astana peace talks, and also took similar positions against the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum and in support of Qatar during its diplomatic crisis. Turkish and Iranian military chiefs also made rare visits to each other’s countries last year, and Erdoğan visited Tehran in October.

Just last June, Erdoğan criticised Tehran for “Persian expansion” in the region, and the countries have often feuded, though generally maintaining cordial relations.

Gönül Tol, director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, said the uptick in cooperation between Ankara and Tehran was born of necessity. She said Ankara needed an ally to work with against the U.S.-backed Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its armed wing, the YPG.

“The backbone of the Turkey-Iran rapprochement is Syria and the Syrian Kurds. Once Turkey resigned itself to the fact that the U.S. won’t stop working with the PYD, Turkey turned to Russia, the (Syrian) regime and Iran,” Tol said.

The Astana talks held between Turkey, Russia and Iran established four “de-escalation zones” where aircraft cannot fly.

“Turkey is trying to encircle the YPG through those de-escalation zones that they set up,” Tol said.

“There’s a shared animosity against any Kurdish nationalist movement,” said Şafak Baş, an associate fellow at the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), in Germany, who focuses on Iran and Turkey.

Tehran struggles with its own Kurdish minority and some Iranian Kurds have fought with the YPG in Syria. Baş said Iran fears “that these guys take their skills home and fight, bringing a new era of insurgency to the Iranian heartland”.

Tol said cozying up to Iran would further damage already perilous ties with Washington and that Ankara, with few friends left, should watch its step in the region.

“There’s already a lot of tension between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, particularly the UAE, and I think they’re watching warily what’s happening between Turkey and Iran.”

Regardless of the recent cooperation between Ankara and Tehran, the two countries are still regional competitors.

“Both powers are still rivals in the region and will vie for greater influence in the reconstruction of the region, especially of Syria and Iraq,” said Gülriz Şen, a political science professor specialising in Iran at Ankara’s TOBB University of Economics and Technology.

Turkey and Iran have had a long relationship based on both conflict and cooperation, as major regional actors and the two oldest nation-states in the Middle East.

Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Islamic Republic has been a bogeyman for Turkish secularists.

After the revolution, Baş said, “Iran suddenly turned into the ideological nemesis of the Kemalist elite”.

Since then, many Turkish secularists have warned that Islamists would turn Turkey into Iran. This alarm has been amplified as Erdoğan’s government has brought religion much more prominently into the public eye and implementing Islamist policies and practices into education and other areas, as well as de-emphasising the secular principles of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

But Baş said Turkey still had a long way to go before it turned into the Islamic Republic.

“I’ve lived in both countries, and Turkey is definitely not Iran,” he said. “Even though we have a weak opposition, we still have an opposition.”

He pointed out how the revolution was massively popular in Iran. “Erdoğan doesn’t have that support,” he said, as he only commands the loyalty of barely half the population.

“The main difference between the Iranian regime and the AKP is that the Iranian regime managed to establish an ideological foundation for the state,” Baş said.

“The biggest thing the AKP lacks is ideology,” he said. Erdoğan’s party had vacillated between liberal reforms, Islamism, nationalism, and a wildly shifting foreign policy, Baş said.

Protests in Iran and Turkey have also been compared to each other. Turkey’s Gezi protests in 2013 were similar to Iran’s Green Movement uprising in 2009.

“Both were urban, basically carried out by the urban middle and upper classes, and didn’t really reach the working classes in either country. That’s why both failed,” said Baş.

But the current protests in Iran are fundamentally different from Gezi or the Green Movement.

“The protestors are mainly the urban poor, the working class and the unemployed youth, who constitute the support base of the conservatives,” said Şen.

“While the initial target of the protests was the Rouhani government for its economic failures, the protests quickly turned against the regime and the supreme leader and they voiced criticism of Tehran's foreign policy and its region-wide involvement,” Şen said.

Unemployment, particularly amongst the youth, is very high, prices of basic goods have skyrocketed in the last year, and in December an increase in gas prices was announced.

“Life is getting harder and harder. It’s getting more expensive day by day,” Baş said.

“If you drive through northern Tehran, you will feel like you’re in Malibu – a lot of Porsches. People are incredibly rich, at least in the north of Tehran and Tabriz … but others aren’t able to buy a kilo of rice.”

The protesters soon expanded their criticisms to include the Islamic Republic itself

“What sustains these protests is not just economic issues, but the cognizance that under any kind of faction, we’re still not progressing. Everybody, from (former president Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad to Rouhani, promises us XYZ, but they all failed to deliver,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think-tank.

Western countries should walk a fine line in their stance towards opposition movements in both Turkey and Iran, the analysts said, both of which harbour considerable anti-Western, and particularly anti-American sentiments.

“If you want me to speak from my heart, I would say (Western countries) have a moral obligation to (give) support, but on the other hand that’s backfired, especially in countries where anti-Americanism is really strong and where the regimes have used them to delegitimise the legitimate demands of the people,” said Tol.

“Whenever there’s a protest, the first reflex of Erdoğan and the ayatollahs in Iran is pointing to the West. So I think (getting involved) has been counterproductive. But on the other hand I like the fact that French President (Emmanuel) Macron recently raised the issue of human rights and the rule of law in his meeting with Erdoğan.”

Tol said during the 2009 protests in Iran, President Barack Obama initially stayed quiet, but raised his voice after the government crackdown, which she said was smart.

“Declaring support for the right to peaceful protests is crucial,” Şen said.

“However, these calls should be made in the context of universal human rights and the people should not become a bargaining chip for geopolitical leverage.”