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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. 

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But the Arab Spring has changed Turkey's calculation. That may have factored in to Turkey's decision in September to end years of foot-dragging and accept US anti-missile radar units on Turkish soil – part of a NATO missile shield aimed at thwarting Iranian ballistic missiles.

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Turkey's adjusted approach is not a "coordinated number of steps, following each other, complementing each other," adds Kalaycioglu. "Rather there are lots of disparities, trials and errors, some erratic moves, and it looks as if the Turkish government currently is testing the waters.... The former policy is completely down the drain, of 'zero problems with neighbors.' Now we have mounting problems with neighbors."

Iranian officials have sharply criticized Turkey as a sellout to the West, but recent polling of Arab views indicate that they don't buy it, and Iran's popularity has dropped.

"Not only have Arab revolutionaries and protesters seen right through Iran's clumsy attempt to claim some credit for the Arab Spring, but Turkey has adroitly capitalized on the dramatic changes taking place in the Middle East to increase its influence and prestige among Arab publics, at the expense of its former partnership with Iran," write Mr. Tol and Mr. Vatanka of the Middle East Institute in Washington in their analysis, published this week on the Tehran Bureau website.

"The recent actions of the Turks have now effectively killed any Iranian hopes that Ankara will join the so-called rejectionist camp made up of Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah aimed at confronting the West," they write. Instead, Turkey has shown that its "basic security interests are anchored to the West."

Iran left fuming on the sidelines

Iranian-Turkish relations began to improve when Erdogan's Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

Turkey came to be viewed by Iran as a trusted interlocutor on the nuclear issue, among other things. In May 2010, Turkey and Brazil facilitated a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Tehran in a bid to forestall a fourth round of United Nations sanctions against Iran.

Turkey's sharp rebuke of Israel over the Gaza flotilla incident that same month added to the sense of Turkey moving out of the Western orbit. Israeli commandos boarded the flagship of a largely Turkish aid flotilla aimed at breaking the Israeli siege on Gaza, killing eight Turks and a dual US-Turkish citizen.

The Turkey-Israel alliance soured, Turkey cut off military ties, and the large flow of tourists from the Jewish state dried up – all prompting more Iranian rhetoric that Turkey was on the right side of history.

That was Tehran's view, too, when Erdogan forged a personal friendship with Assad, whose family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for more than four decades.

But months of street unrest across Syria, and repressive attempts to crush it that prompted thousands of Syrians to flee across the border into camps in Turkey, prompted Erdogan to finally cut ties with Assad in September.

Turkey has since hosted several meetings of the Syrian opposition – including one in Istanbul that saw the creation of an exiled Syrian National Council in September – and more recently has provided a haven for ranking officers deserting from the Syrian Army.

Iran, as Syria's primary backer in the region, has been furious, but could do nothing but complain loudly – and watch from the sidelines as Erdogan took a "victory" lap through Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia in September to cement ties with new revolutionaries and call for "Islamic democracy."
Iranian officials have made no such high-profile visits.

"There was no concern [by Turkey] about democracy until the summer of 2011 in Syria," says Kalaycioglu. "Previously there was the same authoritarian regime [in Syria], and we were getting enormously close to it, unnecessarily close to it. Therefore I'm not sure that democracy played any role.... I'm going to disregard that as empty rhetoric."

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