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Turkey's rising clout leaves Iran fuming on sidelines of Arab Spring

The fast-emerging split between Turkey and Iran has revived a centuries-old rivalry between the Ottomans and the Persians. 

By Staff writer / November 2, 2011

Turkish President Abdullah Gul (r.) and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai (l.) speak during the Istanbul Conference for Afghanistan in Istanbul, Turkey, Wednesday. While Iran relented at the last minute to send Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, the diplomatic tension indicates how the people-power uprisings have helped transform the Turkey-Iran friendship into an escalating rivalry.

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Istanbul, Turkey

Once friends, Turkey and Iran are finding that their reactions to the Arab Spring revolutions are driving them apart and renewing an old regional rivalry.

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One sign of the deepening divide was obvious from the attendee list for an international conference on Afghanistan security that opened today in Istanbul.

Every primary player is here: 14 regional nations, with the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan in attendance, as well as more than a dozen other countries, including the United States. But Iran had planned to send just its low-ranking deputy foreign minister, despite its long border with Afghanistan and claims of being a regional superpower.

While Iran relented at the last minute and sent Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, the diplomatic tension indicates how the people-power uprisings have helped transform the Turkey-Iran friendship into an escalating rivalry.

So far, analysts say, Turkey appears the winner in pushing for secular, democratic outcomes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and especially Syria – even if more by default than by design. And Iran, offering little more than nondemocratic Islamic rule and anti-Western vitriol, at this point appears the loser.

The result is a rekindling of a centuries-old rivalry for influence between the Persians and the Ottomans, with an outcome that "will affect the security architecture of the Middle East for years to come," according to Gonul Tol and Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute in Washington in a recent analysis.

Iran has claimed, with scant evidence, that the Arab Spring changes are an "Islamic Awakening" modeled after Iran's own 1979 Islamic Revolution. Popular protests against the regime of Iran's close ally Syria are an exception, argues Tehran.

Those views – and Iran's brutal 2009 crackdown against its own pro-democracy protests – have undermined Iran's appeal across the Arab world, even as Turkey has gained more traction as a model that blends secular, democratic rule with an Islamist bent.

Turkey shifts support from autocrats to democrats

The fast-emerging split between the former allies is perhaps most clear in Syria, where Turkey and Iran now have dramatically opposing views about the repressive actions of President Bashar al-Assad.

On Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised the months-long uprising in Syria, calling the 3,000 who have died there at the hands of security forces "martyrs."

"The Syrian people will achieve results from their glorious resistance," Mr. Erdogan said. "Democracy will show its true self in Syria. Justice and freedom will be obtained by the Syrian people by their own will."

Yet until the Arab Spring took root earlier this year, Turkey had been cozying up to authoritarian powers with little apparent regard for the regional "democracy" that it espouses today.

In 2009, Syria's president and his Turkish counterpart affectionately called each other "brother." Erdogan said Syria is "our second home" and Assad hailed their "joint future" as a model of "brotherly ties." But Turkey's top priority appeared to be economic and political connections, not yielding to the popular will.

"Turkey had gone overboard in making these kind of gestures," says Ersin Kalaycioglu, a political scientist at Sabanci University in Istanbul.

"Earlier, the only major forces that Turkey supported were the anti-Israeli, relatively radical forces such as Hamas," says Mr. Kalaycioglu. "Now that democracy is a rising force, Turkey seems to be shifting grounds, ditching [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi first, and then Bashar al-Assad, and also supporting developments in Egypt as much as possible."

Turkey moves back toward the West

On many fronts, Turkey's rhetoric – including its increasingly strident anti-Israeli views – had prompted Western analysts to question whether the NATO ally was forsaking its pro-West outlook to join the Iranian-led axis of resistance.

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