A high ranking Iranian cleric used some tough language against Turkey on Wednesday. Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi - recently appointed to head the newly constituted Arbitration Council- accused Turkey of promoting a Westernized version of Islam to advance its interests in the region. Shahroudi, who is seen as a possible successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Turkey's claims to be the "guardian of the resistance movement" are tarnished by Ankara's relations with Israel and alliance with the United States. He said that Iran, despite its support of the Palestinians and efforts against the West, has been pushed to the margins.
Shahroudis comments come a day after another high-ranking cleric, Naser Makarrem-Shirazi (a grand ayatollah who is very close to the Iranian political establishment) criticized the Turkish government for turning against Syria, accusing Ankara of being at the complete disposal of the West. Earlier on Monday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought Ankara's help in protecting the Syrian regime from Western pressure during a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that lasted more than thirty minutes.
The clerics' remarks are the first time that Iran has used hostile language against the Turkish government since Erdogans Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power . Ever since the AKP assumed leadership in 2002, relations between Tehran and Ankara have been fairly close. It wasn't too long ago that Iran sought Turkish mediation on the nuclear issue and Turkey drew the disapproval of the United States on the matter.
Clearly, much has changed and fast. In many ways, this estrangement was bound to happen. STRATFOR has long said that despite the current warm relations, Iran and Turkey would ultimately clash as they both seek to emerge as regional players in the Middle East. The Syrian regime's use of force to quell popular agitation has served as a trigger with Turkey leading the heavy international pressure against Damascus.
From the Iranian point of view, Syria is the only state actor in the largely Arab Middle East that is an ally of the Islamic republic. In fact, Tehrans plans to assume the mantle of a major regional power are tied to the durability of President Bashar al Assad's government. Thus, Turkey's turn against the Alawite-Baathist regime in Syria represents a major threat to Iran.
STRATFOR recently highlighted how Turkey and Iran, given their respective interests in Syria, must engage with each other. The recent shift in the Iranian attitude towards Turkey suggests that those dealings may have taken a turn for the worse. Indeed, Syria is not the only factor that has generated Irans displeasure towards Turkey.
Tehran does not want to see Ankara emerge as the dominant power in the Middle East and the leader of the wider Islamic world. Iran's efforts to be seen as the vanguard of Muslim causes are undermined if Turkey emerges as a model for other Arab and Muslim states. Therefore, Shahroudi and Makarrem-Shirazi's remarks are Irans way of sending a message to Turkey - that Tehran will not sit by and allow Ankara to take the lead and claim ownership of issues that are critical to Iranian national security interests. How Iran decides to confront Turkey remains unclear. What is certain is that Iranian-Turkish tensions will likely aggravate the situation in the region, which is already witnessing unprecedented instability.