America, Turkey and Iran Could Be Headed Toward a Showdown

U.S. Soldiers fire an M777 A2 Howitzer in support of Operation Inherent Resolve at Platoon Assembly Area 14, Iraq. DVIDSHUB/Public domain

The three-way competition between Ankara, Tehran and Washington reveal the difficulties of combating the Islamic State. 

Interests of Washington, Ankara and Tehran are on trajectories suggesting accelerating clashes within and among the three states. President Trump made a congratulatory call to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after a controversial vote on a referendum then invited him to the White House, prompting a plethora of bipartisan criticism; also, Tehran’s agents assassinated an Iranian businessman in Ankara—Saeed Karimian, founder of Gem TV, who had previously been tried in absentia by an Iranian court.

It’s no surprise Ankara is playing down the possibility of an Iranian hit team operating on Turkish soil. Hinting it was an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) team would anger some politicians in Tehran, and what is left of the Turkish opposition media will note Erdogan’s sacking of thousands of police and security forces has left Turkey vulnerable to terrorist attacks. With the IRGC in a spat with one of the approved candidates (First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri) in the Iranian elections this month, now is not the time the IRGC needs negative publicity about being involved in an assassination abroad.

With this breaking news in mind, consider how Washington, Ankara and Tehran are on trajectories suggesting accelerating clashes.

On April 25, 2017, Turkish planes carried out airstrikes against suspected Kurdish rebel positions in northern Iraq and in northeastern Syria, killing elements of the Syrian Kurds’ militia, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and, with errant fire, elements of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s peshmerga. The Turkish military said its goal was to prevent Kurds from smuggling fighters and weapons into Turkey. Ankara accuses members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of conducting terrorist attacks in Turkey from neighboring Iraq and Syria. It considers the YPG an affiliate of the PKK. Washington expressed concerns that this action was not properly coordinated, potentially imperiling U.S. military personnel in Syria fighting alongside Syrian anti-Islamic State forces.

Washington agrees the PKK is a terrorist organization, but disputes the conclusion that YPG is a group that all parties to the Syrian conflict concur is a terrorist organization in word and deed, in part due to its membership in the American-led international coalition against the Islamic State. The Islamic State seized large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014. Since then, the coalition has made significant gains against the terror group. Coalition forces have been relying on the ground forces of the American-backed and YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and are closing in on the de facto capital of the Islamic State, the city of Raqqa, Syria.

Collision of American, Iranian and Turkish Interests

Iran and Turkey share with the United States opposition to the Islamic State and to increased Kurdish autonomy—an independent Kurdish state is, for Tehran and Ankara, unimaginable. Still, they approach each other warily in cooperation against Islamic State and Kurdish rebels—more frenemies than partners. This situation is partially due to widely different relations of the state to religion in each country: in Turkey, the elected president dominates religious leaders; in Iran, the Ayatollahs dominate the political leaders. Washington’s approach to how Iran and Turkey conduct their respective military operations in Iraq and Syria needs to reflect the joint and competing interests of the two coalitions in northern Iraq and in northeastern Syria.

An example of the accelerating clash of American and Iranian interests in Iraq is praise Iraqi president Fuad Masum gave to Iran. Per MEMRI on March 28, 2017, Masoum “hailed Iran for the effectual supports [sic] it has provided for the Arab country in the fight against terrorism [and stressed] that . . . Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani is in Iraq as part of Baghdad’s plan to get help from foreign-military advisors.” Then, on February 7, 2017, to counter Iran, the Trump administration is considering designating the entire IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, rather than only individuals or units, some of which are currently designated, according to Reuters.