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Iran, Turkey Rivalry Puts Focus on Kurds

Turkish Kurds watch the Syrian town of Kobani from a hill near the Mursitpinar border crossing, in Suruc, Oct. 24, 2014.

As differences over Syria and the Islamic State continue to deepen between Turkey and Iran, Kurds living across the Middle East are set to become pawns in the intensifying rivalry between these two regional powers.

This week, former close allies Tehran and Ankara again exchanged angry barbs.

The Iranian foreign ministry accused Turkey of prolonging the Syrian civil war by its support of rebels fighting against the Iran-backed Syrian government. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Tehran of dishonesty in efforts to end the war.

Political scientist Nuray Mert of Istanbul University, who recently visited Tehran, says bilateral relations are at a historical low.

"From Ottoman times I mean both countries found a modus vivendi, despite of all difficulties and crisis. But they could not pass the test of Syria. Iranians think that Turkey went sectarian. And the basic threat as the Iranians see it is Sunni sectarianism, which is very hostile to Shia in the region," said Mert.

With Turkey and Iran having large, restive Kurdish minorities, Kurds have often been used as pawns in the two nations' regional rivalry, according to diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz of the Turkish newspaper Taraf and Al Monitor website.

"It is not unknown, Iran has helped Kurds even as it’s fighting its own separatist Kurds. The grammar of the Kurdish question in the region is rather confused," said Idiz.

During Turkey's three-decade long conflict with the Kurdish rebel group PKK, Ankara from time to time accused Tehran of providing logistical support to the rebels. At other times the two countries cooperated in fighting the group.

This year, senior members of Turkey’s ruling AK Party accused Tehran of trying to incite the PKK to end its nearly two-year cease-fire with the Turkish state.

Tehran denies all accusations of collusion with the PKK. But the peace process in Turkey is now under strain over Ankara’s reluctance to support PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurds against a prolonged assault by Islamic State jihadists. This raises the possibility of Tehran inciting the PKK, according to international relations expert Soli Ozel of Kadir Has University.

"I am sure the Iranians are very much present all over Turkey and certainly in the southeast, trying to stir things up. What they will do with their ability I really can't speculate," said Ozel.

Other analysts say with Tehran improving its image with Western nations over its role battling Islamic State militants in Iraq, it may not want to risk inciting a renewal of PKK armed action against NATO member Turkey.

Observers also point out that until Tehran’s intervention, Ankara had positioned itself as the Iraqi Kurds' protector as well as key trading partner with the hope of using Iraqi Kurdistan to project Turkish influence.

The extent to which Iran can project its influence with Kurds in the region is limited by Washington, according to diplomatic columnist Kadri Gursel of the Turkish newspaper Milliyet. Gursel says with the U.S. arming Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, Kurds will look to Washington first.

"Now the U.S. is coming back to the region. When the U.S. enters into the equation, Kurds refrain to be in the same picture as Iran. It all depends on the U.S., and how deep the U.S. enters into the equation," said Gursel.

Analysts warn that the rivalry between Tehran and Ankara shows little sign of ending, and the region's Kurds will likely remain a focal point. And, the scope of that rivalry is likely to be affected by what role Washington decides to play in the region and where the Kurds fit into its strategy.