Puffing the Turkish Chibouk in Ankara
When in a recent column, I commented on efforts by NATO powers to establish some contact with the Iranian military, I didn't expect any quick development on that score. However, this is precisely what happened last week when Iran's new Chief of Staff, General Muhammad-Hussein Baqeri led a 40-man military-political delegation to the Turkish capital Ankara for a three-day official visit which had been the subject of months of intense negotiations between the two neighbors.
The visit was historic for at least four reasons.
To start with, this was the first time since the seizure of power by the mullahs in 1979 that an Iranian Chief of Staff visited Turkey. Before the mullahs seized power, Iran and Turkey had been allies in the context of three military pacts.
The first, Saadabad Pact, a brainchild of Reza Shah of Iran and Turkey's first President Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), provided the backbone of relations from the 1920s to the Second World War. The second was the Baghdad Pact, which also included Great Britain and Iraq, and came to an end in 1958 with the military coup that ended the Iraqi monarchy. The Baghdad Pact was quickly replaced by the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) which, in addition to the UK, also included Pakistan.
Initially, the United States was also slated to join but did not because Iran's constitution forbade putting Iranian troops under foreign command, a point on which Washington insisted as a precedent set by NATO. In the end, the US settled for an associate membership of CENTO while, in reality, treating it as a link between NATO and the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO), which the US also dominated.
CENTO fell apart when Shapour Bakhtiar, who served as the Shah's last Prime Minister for 27 days, took Iran out of the alliance as a means of pleasing the mullahs leading a revolt in 1978.
The three treaties, Saadabad, Baghdad and CENTO, meant that the Iranian and Turkish militaries could develop wide-ranging and deep relations at all levels. Joint staff conversations were held every six months and hundreds of officers on both sides served in each other's armies, air forces and navies in the context of a massive exchange program.
Thousands of officers on both sides benefited from special classes in Turkish or Persian to extend the space of camaraderie, from high command to platoon levels.
The two nations' air forces shared the same coordinates, initially established by NATO, and, because they used the same US-made equipment, could simulate joint action against the potential enemy which, at the time, was none other than the Soviet Union. In 1974, during the Cyprus crisis when the Turkish army invaded northern Cyprus, Iran dispatched several of its latest US-made fighters to Turkey in a symbolic show of support against threats of anti-Turkey action by Greece, another NATO member.
For more than three centuries - since the Treaty of Qasr-Shirin (1623-1639) - the Ottoman Empire and Iran lived in peace while both faced the threat of the rising Russian Empire. Even after the fall of the Caliphate in Istanbul, Iran continued to see Turkey as its only safe neighbor.
With the creation of the Khomeinist regime, however, Turkey was suddenly transformed into "the enemy". It boasted a secular system and insisted on keeping religion out of government, exactly the opposite of what the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the new Iranian regime, preached.
Worse still, Turkey was a close ally of the American "Great Satan" and provided NATO's second largest army. While Khomeini was engaged in the mass execution of Iran's army officers, many officers managed to flee to Turkey, where they were sheltered by their former CENTO allies. In 1983, Khomeini ordered the creation of a Turkish branch of Hezbollah to seek the overthrow of the secular republic in Ankara. And when the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) lost most of its bases in Syria after the capture of its leader Abdallah Ocalan, the Khomeinist regime offered the Marxist-secessionist armed group a safe haven in Iranian territory.
Relations between the two neighbors deteriorated to the point that in the 1990s they became engaged in a number of minor border "incidents."
General Baqeri's visit seems designed to wipe the slate clean.
The second reason why the general's visit was historic is that it marks an understanding by both sides that they cannot hope to dominate the Levant region (Iraq-Syria-Lebanon-Jordan) without acknowledging each other's interests. While the Khomeinist regime seeks space for its so-called revolution, Turkey is trying to forge a glacis to serve its national security against armed Kurdish groups that might at one point come together to carve out a state of their own in parts of Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
However, concern about Kurdish aspirations isn't the only cause of concern in Ankara and Tehran. Both are also worried about Russia gaining too much influence by exploiting the current absence of a credible Western presence in the Middle East. Despite tactical alliances with Russia over Syria, to both Turkey and Iraq, Russia remains the "near enemy" with a 200-year history of war and aggression.
But the third reason why Gen. Baqeri's visit to Ankara is historic is that it resumes the Iran-NATO military contact that was severed in 1979. To be sure, this is only an indirect and, for the time being, limited, contact. However, General Hulusi Akar, the Turkish Chief of Staff, is an old NATO hand, having served in various segments of the alliance, notably at an intelligence unit in Naples, Italy.
Also, the planned meetings at lower levels of the military on both sides is sure to extend and systematize contact, allowing NATO to gain a better direct understanding of the mindset of the Iranian military elite which is emerging as the key player in the country's post-Khamenei prospects. NATO has had indirect contact with several Khomeinist officers for years, including trough their relatives living in Europe and North America. Now, however, the Turkish link provides an official channel to exchange information and messages.
Finally, Gen. Baqeri's Ankara mission is historic because it illustrates what some of us have been saying for years: the real power in Tehran is in the hands of Khamenei, who is increasingly relying on the military, and people playing the roles of President, ministers etc. are often little more than singers of the part given them in the Khomeinist operetta.
As always in history, there is some irony in this case, too. While President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is dismantling the Turkish model in which the military was the backbone of state power, Iran may be adopting a version of that model as symbolized by General Baqeri's state visit at the head of a massive military-political mission.
The smoke from the chibouk puffed on by Baqeri and Erdogan in Ankara may dance in the air for some time before it assumes a clear shape.