ISTANBUL - Tensions between Turkey and Iran appear to be on the rise, with the two jostling for influence in war-torn Syria and Iraq.
Officially, Ankara says it enjoys good relations with Tehran. But an escalating war of words in Turkey's pro-government media tells a different story,
"It's very telling that we have what appears to be an intense anti-Iranian campaign in the pro-government Islamist media," said political columnist Semih Idiz of Al Monitor website and Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News. "I have been reading commentary by key figures on that side of the fence suggesting Iran as one of Turkey's prime enemies, not just rivals in the region, because it's promoting its brand of islam, Shia Islam."
Yeni Safak, a leading pro-government newspaper, on Thursday accused the prominent Tehran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi Shi'ite militia in Iraq of providing heavy weapons, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, to the Kurdish rebel group PKK, which is fighting the Turkish state.
Idiz said he didn't think the rivalry would spill into direct conflict. "I don't actually see a direct confrontation, although I do see a confrontation through proxies, and in many ways that is already going on," he said.
Erdogan opposes Shi'ite militias
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a Sunni Muslim who derives much of his support from the country's large and pious Sunni voting base.
Erdogan is increasingly condemning the actions of Iraqi Shi'ite militias backed by Tehran, accusing them of targeting Sunnis. He also has indirectly accused Tehran of seeking to expand its influence, through its ties with Iraq's Shi'ites, at the expense of Sunni Muslims in the country.
The situation is causing unease, with some analysts warning it breaks an unwritten rule of avoiding religious agendas in the region.
"Turkey always refrained [from] intervening in any sectarian conflict. They even refrained at hinting at some sectarian approach," said Haldun Solmazturk, head of the Ankara-based 21st Century Institute. "Now this has all changed, to a self-declared right or authority or even obligation to intervene if Sunnis are threatened or against Shi'ite domination as they read it."
Ankara denies it is following a sectarian policy, insisting it is driven rather by humanitarian concerns.
"We are seeing that, after all these militia operations in the region, we are seeing some demographic changes," said Ayse Sozen Usluer chief of international relations for the Turkish presidency. "We are not against Shia militias because they are Shia, but we would like to maintain the demography of the region — [in] Tel Afar, Mosul, Jarabulus, al-Bab, wherever."
An 'unholy alliance' with US?
Erdogan has sent tanks to the Iraqi border and warned that Turkey will not stand idle if Shi'ite militias force out Sunnis during operations against the Islamic State group in Mosul and Tel Afar. Some analysts warn Turkey's neighbors would see such a situation as a sectarian policy putting Ankara on a collision course with Tehran.
However, any increase in tensions between Turkey and Iran could be a basis for cooperation with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. U.S.-Turkish relations have been deeply strained, but with Trump vowing to take a tough line with Iran, a reset could be in the offing.
"They could be an unholy alliance of sorts," columnist Idiz said. "But Trump going after Iran is really based on Trump's anti-Islamism. It's not based on any strategic ideological difference. And anti-Islamism also splashes onto Turkey, depending on what Turkey's policies are."
Turks also look to Israel
After the restoration of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel last month, Ankara could also find common ground with Israel, whose leaders take a tough stance against Tehran.
Turkish-Iranian relations are traditionally characterized by a delicate balance, between rivalry and cooperation. Some analysts warn Ankara could be in danger of overplaying its ambitions.
"Turkey is not a big power; Turkey is even not a middle power. Turkey is a regional power, and there are the limits to what Turkey can do," analyst Solmazturk said. "Once Turkey crosses those limits, and I am afraid they are on the verge of doing this, then Turkey will find itself in a situation it cannot control. And this is a process happening now."
Iran is widely recognized as an adept regional player in using proxies to destabilize its rivals, so cautious analysts are warning that Ankara could pay a heavy price for any confrontation with Tehran.