Hamas’ violent and unexpected Oct. 7 attack on Israel has shaken a fragile regional order in the Middle East. Worried that the conflict in Gaza could escalate into a regional war, the U.S. has dispatched two aircraft carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean. An additional 900 U.S. troops have been deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of operations to bolster defenses amid a surge in attacks by Iran-affiliated militias across the region.
The seemingly renewed American commitment to the Middle East has already created apprehension in Turkey and Iran. The leadership of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) sees the U.S.’s unconditional support for Israel as an obstacle to its own efforts to de-escalate the situation. Iran’s ruling elites have called the United States Israel’s “indisputable accomplice” in the “massacre of Gaza’s civilians.”
Beyond their rhetorical criticism of the lack of American leadership in pressuring Israel for a ceasefire, Ankara and Tehran are worried that a stronger U.S. presence in the Middle East is detrimental to their regional interests. The war in Gaza might, depending on its longevity, help close the ranks between Turkey and Iran, given their shared objection to a U.S.-led regional and world order. Yet there are serious limitations to a sustainable alliance between the two countries.
Relations with Hamas
Both Ankara and Tehran have ties with Hamas, albeit of a different nature. Unlike its Western allies, Turkey does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization. In 2018, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described it as part of the Palestinian resistance defending “the Palestinian homeland against an occupying power.” At the AKP’s “Big Palestine Rally” on Oct. 28, a day before the centennial of the foundation of the Turkish Republic, he repeated that description. Ankara sees support for Hamas as part of its policy of defending the Palestinian cause. This policy stands on the AKP leadership’s ambitions for democracy promotion, peace mediation, and leadership of the ummah.
To this end, Ankara has provided a safe haven to its members (alongside other Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups after the Arab uprisings) and generously supported their organizations operating in Turkey. Yet since 2020 the Turkish government has been cautious and distanced itself from Arab Islamists, including Hamas, to help repair its relations with Arab states, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as with Israel.
Yet the most recent cycle of war in Gaza has revealed the limits of Turkey’s rapprochement efforts, particularly with Israel. At the same time, its relations with Hamas also have little value as its seemingly ineffective efforts to mediate hostage negotiations demonstrate.
On the other hand, Iran provides comprehensive political, economic, and military support to Hamas. Tehran is ostensibly trying to take advantage of the changing regional circumstances and the growing anti-Israeli sentiment in the Muslim world triggered by Israel’s disproportionate and indiscriminate assault on Gaza in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks. In his unexpected appearance at the United Nations General Assembly on Oct. 26, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian noted Iran’s readiness, along with Turkey and Qatar, to play a role in securing the release of civilian hostages held by Hamas. During the first week of the Gaza conflict, the presidents and foreign ministers of Iran and Turkey engaged in separate discussions aimed at negotiation and coordination. Amir-Abdollahian visited Turkey on Nov. 1, meeting with President Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan.
Sidelining Western actors in Syria and the South Caucasus
Beyond their relations with Hamas, Turkey and Iran have other overlapping interests as well. Both actors are disturbed by the American presence in Syria. Ankara sees the U.S.’s continued support for Kurds in northern Syria as an obstacle to its efforts to prevent Kurdish autonomy under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Both the United States and Turkey regard the PKK as a terrorist organization. Recently, Turkish Foreign Minister Fidan justified Ankara’s position on Hamas by referencing the U.S. stance regarding the YPG in Syria.
For Iran, challenging the U.S. in Syria is part of its broader foreign policy goal of “expelling the U.S. from the region.” Tehran sees the American efforts to concentrate and augment its forces around the Syrian-Iraqi border as a threat to its hard-won land access to Syria via Iraq. An ally of President Bashar al-Assad, Iran also believes that the Syrian regime won’t be able to re-establish full control of the country if parts of it remain in external hands. Even though Tehran considers both the U.S. and Turkey as occupying forces in Syria, it feels that its disagreements with Turkey can be managed diplomatically. In fact, Tehran, along with Moscow, has been trying to mediate between Damascus and Ankara, albeit with no result so far.
Interests might also be starting to align in the South Caucasus under the shadow of an ongoing Iranian-Turkish rivalry. Notwithstanding Iran’s perception of the Turkish and Azeri-supported Zangezur corridor as a joint Turkish-U.S. plot against itself, its warnings to Azerbaijan to avoid “any change in the geopolitics of the region,” and its concern about Israel’s military support for Azerbaijan, Turkish and Azeri officials lately appear open to replacing the Zangezur corridor with a route passing through Iran. In this vein, Tehran has embraced the so-called 3+3 initiative, a proposal put forth by Ankara that includes the three South Caucasus countries along with Turkey, Iran, and Russia. Tehran played host to the foreign ministers of these countries, aside from Georgia, on Oct. 23. For Tehran, this initiative aims to “address regional challenges without the intervention of trans-regional and Western powers.” So far, it seems that both Turkey and Russia are aligned with Iran in shaping regional dynamics in the South Caucasus without Western interference.
Shared convictions about an emerging multi-polar world order
In fact, Ankara and Tehran converge on their working assumptions about a changing world order. Turkey’s ruling elites believe that “the West lacks strategic thinking and has increasingly become estranged from the rest of the world in the face of various issues including relations with China, migration and terror, and the shift in economic gravity from the West to the East.” Recent statements from top Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also suggest that they perceive a decline in America’s global role and influence, anticipating a shift toward a non-Western global order.
Yet Ankara and Tehran do not only converge on the assumptions. Both the AKP and the Iranian leadership challenge the coherence and viability of Western institutions. Turkey does this in three ways. First, as a talking point in its foreign policy, it criticizes the structure of the United Nations Security Council under the slogan “the world is bigger than five,” referring to its five permanent members. It also demands an international order that “treats every nation on an equal footing.” Second, it has emerged as a widely accepted disruptive actor within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Its procrastination on advancing Sweden’s membership application is the most recent example. Finally, it engages with organizations such as the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and forms its own multilateral arrangements, like the Astana Format, alongside Russia and Iran.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic has consistently advocated for a shift away from Western-dominated international structures. Iran sees the current international landscape as an opportunity to strengthen ties with emerging powers, as evidenced by its strategic partnership with China, membership in the SCO and BRICS, and military support for Russia in the Ukraine war.
Toward an “Axis of Revisionism”?
For Ankara and Tehran, the rapidly unfolding events since Oct. 7 seem to have created an opening that confirms these revisionist assumptions and efforts. The myth of an invincible Israeli military and intelligence apparatus has been broken, and with it, the U.S. government’s efforts to recalibrate the regional order by facilitating Arab-Israeli normalization have been disrupted, if not scrapped altogether, at least in the near term. Many in the so-called Global South are disillusioned by the unequivocal and, to a large extent, unconditional support that the U.S. and the EU give Israel. Israel’s refusal to issue visas for U.N. officials in protest of the U.N. chief’s indirect criticism only sharpens the view in Ankara and Tehran that international institutions are dysfunctional.
All of this might pave the way to closing the ranks between various revisionist actors. For instance, Hamas leaders visited Moscow on Oct. 26. That same day, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri was also there and met with the Hamas delegation. Meanwhile, in a speech where he mentioned the “guarantor formula” that Turkey has proposed, Turkish Foreign Minister Fidan stressed the importance of a “potentially unified position between China and Russia, as U.N. Security Council members” toward a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yet there are obvious limits to the emergence of an “Axis of Revisionism.” First and foremost, Turkey remains a NATO member. Amid all that is happening in Gaza, Erdoğan, to the surprise of many, approved Sweden’s NATO membership and sent the bill to the Turkish parliament for ratification. Indeed, being a member of the Western security architecture allows Turkey to be more flexible. Its NATO membership enables Ankara’s so-called balancing act between its Western allies and Russia. Unlike Iran’s revolutionary revisionist stance, Turkey’s revisionism is reformist.
Ankara also sees Tehran’s non-state allies as a potential threat in Syria and Iraq. As long as the war in Gaza continues, the common threat posed by the return of the U.S. to the Middle East might override Tehran’s and Ankara’s competing interests and prevent a potential clash between their ambitious regional policies. In fact, both actors want to reshape their common neighborhood, taking advantage of the transitional state of global politics against the backdrop of the wars in Ukraine and now in Gaza. Once a new order prevails, their rivalry for regional influence will resurface.
Last but not least, the commitment by other revisionist actors is also not guaranteed. Russia benefits from supporting further cooperation between Turkey and Iran and will likely try to capitalize on it with the aim of sidelining Western actors. Yet it is unclear whether it has the capacity to make this sustainable. Also, despite Russia’s controversial stance vis-à-vis Israel in the current conflict, there’s still no evidence suggesting that Moscow is planning to totally overhaul its Israel policy and abandon its good relations with Jerusalem in the long run. China may also find Iranian-Turkish rapprochement useful, but it too needs to accommodate the Gulf states and, therefore, acts more carefully.
Overall, Iranian and Turkish interests seem to be increasingly aligning, particularly in their united front against Israel’s actions toward Hamas and in opposing the resurgence of a U.S.-led regional order. However, their historical competition for strategic dominance in areas like Iraq and Syria, coupled with the distinct forms of revisionism that the AKP and Iranian leadership champion on the global stage, suggests that any emerging alliance between them might remain tenuous and susceptible to strains in the mid to long term.
Sinem Adar is an associate at the Center for Applied Turkey Studies of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. @sinemadar
Hamidreza Azizi is a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. He is also a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs. @HamidRezaAz
Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images
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