ISTANBUL - Recent highly publicized arrests of alleged Iranian agents in Turkey are being seen as an indication of the strains between Turkey and Iran amid regional competition.
In a blaze of publicity, Turkish pro-government media announced last week the arrest of an Iranian diplomat in Istanbul. According to reports citing Turkish authorities, the arrest was connected to the 2019 assassination of Iranian dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani in Istanbul. Tehran described the reports as "baseless," denying any official had been detained.
Last week's reported detention appears to be part of a tougher stance by Turkish security forces toward Iranian activities. In December, in front of TV cameras, Turkish police paraded members of an alleged Iranian spy ring connected to the kidnapping of dissident and Arab activist Habib Chaab.
Usually, diplomatically sensitive detentions are carried out beyond the public glare. Still, Galip Dalay, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a research organization in London, said Ankara was sending a message with the two high-profile arrests.
"The significance is that it has been widely publicized, which is important. It's a manifestation of a new period in the Turkey-Iran relationship," said Dalay.
Turkish-Iranian relations are often characterized by cooperation and competition. In recent years, the emphasis appeared to be more on collaboration, as the countries found common ground in opposing Saudi Arabia's efforts to expand its influence in the region.
However, with Ankara and Riyadh now committing themselves to improving ties, a critical factor in Iranian-Turkish cooperation has been diminished. At the same time, Turkey is increasingly focusing on areas considered by Iran as in its sphere of influence, a move that is stoking Iranian-Turkish rivalries.
Turkey's strong backing of Azerbaijan was pivotal in October's defeat of Armenian separatist forces in a battle over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in Azerbaijan. The enclave has an Armenian majority.
"Iranians have always been afraid of the Turkish influence in Caucasia and Central Asia," said Huseyin Bagci, head of the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute. "Iran tries to increase influence in the Turkish world but failed and will further fail. This is why Iran feels squeezed between the Arabs and the Turks."
Push against Kurdish militants
Ankara's squeeze on Tehran is set to tighten further, with Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, vowing to expand military operations against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, the analysts said.
"Iran is not interested in any regional powers getting more powerful in Iraq," said Zaur Gasimov, an international relations expert at the University of Bonn. "The military presence of Turkey in northern Iraq is a fact that does not make Iran happy."
Turkish forces already control a large swath of the mountainous border region in northern Iraq in the ongoing drive to remove Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) bases. The PKK has been fighting the Turkish state for nearly four decades for greater minority rights. Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist organization.
Ankara is also deepening its political influence in the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, courting the leadership of the Kurdish Regional Government, the KRG. The KRG is offering tacit support to the current Turkish offensive against the PKK.
'Delicate' situation for US
But a rocket attack Monday on Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional capital, that killed or wounded several U.S. coalition personnel is being seen by some analysts as a warning from Tehran to the KRG.
"This is a conflict with #KRG & #Turkey on one side and #PKK and Iran-linked Shia groups on the other — a very delicate situation for the Biden administration," tweeted Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting senior fellow on the European Council on Foreign Relations.
A little-known group called Saraya Awliya al-Dam claimed responsibility.
Despite Iran's having a restive Kurdish population of its own and the PKK's having an Iranian-based organization, the PJAK, observers say, Tehran has a complex relationship with Kurdish militants.
"A PKK whose role is expanding is not in Iran's interest," said Dalay of Chatham House. "But a PKK with a limited regional role, with a larger capacity as a disturbance to Turkey, Iran would not see this as a bad option. In this regard, Iran doesn't have the same threat perception of the PKK that Turkey does. Its relationship with the PKK is transactional.”
The PKK's main base is in Iraq's Qandil region, widely considered outside Ankara's reach. Turkish forces, however, are continuing to drive deeper into Iraq, with Erdogan declaring nowhere will be safe for the PKK.
"Topographically speaking, the greater Qandil area's targeting by land forces is only possible through Iran or in cooperation with Iranian forces," said Aydin Selcen, who was Turkey's first consulate chief in Iraqi Kurdistan. "Iran would extract a diplomatic price for such a game-changing move that does not appear to be in the cards in the foreseeable future."
But with Iranian-Turkish interests appearing increasingly divergent, rivalry rather than cooperation is being predicted as a way to define the neighbors’ relationship.
"We will see increasing tensions between the two countries' proxy networks; the repercussions will be felt most obviously in Syria and Iraq," said Dalay. "But this will not end in a rupture in the Turkish-Iranian relationship; this is two post-imperial states with a long history of cooperation and competition with an accumulative experience in managing their differences."