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MENASource May 10, 2024

The United States should look to Turkey as a regional balancing actor against Iran

By Doga Unlu

The United States is under pressure to leave the Middle East for good. US forces are increasingly attacked in Iraq and Syria as anti-US criticism grows. However, US troops are a long way from returning home, especially amid the tit-for-tat between Iran and Israel, the lack of a ceasefire in the war in Gaza, and the ongoing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Nonetheless, US President Joe Biden has a diplomatic opportunity to strengthen an old partnership and position Turkey as a regional bulwark to encourage a more balanced Iran—a responsibility Turkey has already been taking by mediating between Iran and the United States.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was set to visit the White House in May—but the trip was postponed, with a Turkish official saying a new date will be set soon. The visit, if solidified, would be the first since Biden took office in 2021, marking improved relations between the NATO countries with the two largest militaries. The United States should not lose the opportunity to support Turkey as a balancing actor in the region. Ankara has proved its ability to maintain good diplomatic relations with “frenemies”—particularly Tehran. While Turkey and Iran have significant disagreements in Iraq and Syria, there are opportunities for cooperation and courting, which position Ankara as a valuable voice of stability and restraint. 

The way to achieve such stability passes through Syria, but the argument starts with Iraq. Turkey, Iran, and the United States all have stakes in Iraq that spill over to the rest of the region, particularly Syria. Iraq’s mountainous terrain is home to several paramilitaries, including Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, both of which operate in Syria either directly or through affiliated groups, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—a US-designated terrorist organization with which Turkey has been at war since the 1980s. Yet, the PKK’s Syrian leg, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), receives US support for its assistance in fighting ISIS. 


Turkey’s long-standing campaign against the PKK has become increasingly existential in recent months, with Turkish forces suffering unprecedented losses in Iraq. In response, Turkey is signaling increased activity in northern Iraq over the summer—ringing alarm bells for Iran that is fighting to maintain its influence. Tehran gives at least indirect support to the PKK, and Ankara has accused the Iran-backed Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the minority stakeholder in the Kurdistan Regional Government, of having ties to the PKK, which Turkish officials have warned against. In March, the Iraqi government in Bаghdad officially banned the PKK following high-level talks with Ankara, marking a major win for Turkey that may compel the PUK to follow suit. 

There is a lot at stake for Ankara in preventing Tehran from finding excuses to increase support for the PKK or its Syrian affiliates. While some Iranian proxies target US-backed Kurdish forces to pressure US troops to leave Syria, others fight the Turkish army alongside PKK-linked groups. Turkish presence in northern Iraq pits Turkey against Iran, but also helps mitigate Washington’s concern about Tehran exerting full influence on Iraqi security forces. A large part of that influence can be seen in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which were founded in 2014 to fight ISIS but soon became an umbrella organization of Shia militias loyal to Iran. The PMF acts as a channel for Iran to exert political and military influence in Iraq without being directly involved in internal affairs.

Make no mistake—an angry Iran is not a win for the United States, nor a win for the region. The tricky diplomatic task at hand is encouraging Turkey to partner with the United States while Ankara maintains stable relations with Tehran. 

A theater where Turkey and Iran can play friends and foes

The Iraqi government plans to reopen a section of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which runs through northern Iraq and could provide Turkey with significant energy resources. The Turkish Petroleum Corporation’s discovery of high-grade crude oil in the Mount Gabar area in southeastern Turkey (located in a petroleum system running from Iraq) could help reduce Turkey’s oil imports by 10 percent, according to Turkish officials with whom I have spoken. Turkey and Iraq have also agreed to cooperate on a Development Road project to link Iraq’s Basra province to Europe via Turkey. These are great opportunities that the United States should back to break Iraq’s energy dependence on Iran. Doing so would not only help Iraq become a more dependable regional ally, but would also ensure that US measures against Iran are more effective. In March, to give Iraq more time to develop its energy resources, the United States extended a sanctions waiver for Iraqi purchases of Iranian electricity. Turkey is doing precisely that, moving Iraq away from Iran’s orbit and closer to US interests.

Iran sees several problems with these initiatives. For starters, Turkey is Iran’s second-largest natural-gas customer after Iraq, but Ankara has been working to break that dependency by investing in oil and gas exploration around its shore and building infrastructure that would provide easier access to the resources of neighboring countries, including Iraq and Azerbaijan. Ankara has also been reluctant to negotiate with Tehran about renewing a pipeline contract set to expire in 2026. The list of alternative buyers for Iranian oil is limited due to US sanctions, and Turkey’s projects in Iraq are designed to push Iran into further isolation.

Against these odds, however, Ankara and Tehran have shown interest in increased energy cooperation. In April, Turkish Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Alparslan Bayraktar visited Tehran—only a few months after Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Ankara, which resulted in energy-related economic deals and a renewed commitment to increase annual trade volume to $30 billion. Turkey’s dire economic situation certainly makes any trade relations significant, but, at least when it comes to energy, Ankara has alternatives. 

So, why is Turkey courting Iran?

Syria is the backbone of balancing diplomacy between Turkey, Iran, and the United States. Establishing a 900-kilometer secure zone along the Turkey-Syria border to drive Kurdish forces south and return millions of refugees remains a top priority for Ankara. This requires buy-in from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who said last year that he would not sit down with Erdoğan without the precondition that Turkey agrees to withdraw its forces from northern Syria—a nonnegotiable item for Ankara. Therefore, Turkey’s message delivery requires the involvement of Iran and Russia. Occupied with the war in Ukraine, Russia is less of a potential advocate than Iran, which started closing gaps with Turkey since the start of the Gaza war by sending high-level delegations to Ankara to discuss regional politics. 

Iran views both the United States and Turkey as occupying forces in Syria but believes diplomatic channels could resolve its disagreements with Turkey. Tehran tried to mediate between Damascus and Ankara, although this did not produce results. Turkish leadership continues to explore options to receive support from Tehran and Moscow, as evidenced by Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan’s visit to Tehran in September 2023 to discuss Syria, which was preceded by a visit to Moscow.

The United States needs to understand that Syria is the crucial driving force of Turkey-Iran relations. Although Ankara and Tehran back opposing forces within Syria, Ankara needs Tehran’s support to achieve one of its top foreign policy goals. Therefore, Turkey is motivated to appease Iran through other means, such as energy cooperation. Keeping friendly relations with Iran also helps Turkey protect the security dynamic in Iraq by preventing a red light from Tehran as Ankara maintains its military presence. Here, too, Ankara plays a balancing role by preventing full PMF control on the ground and keeping Iran’s military influence in check. 

Turkey and the United States continue to disagree on various policies in the Middle East, such as the United States’ support of Israel and Kurdish forces in Syria. Still, relations between Ankara and Washington are warming up. Turkey’s membership in the Western security architecture allows for more flexibility and room for maneuver and enables Ankara’s balancing act. Objectives surrounding Syria drive Ankara to seek stable relations with Tehran amid geopolitical competition. This allows the United States to partner with Turkey to de-escalate crises, such as the tit-for-tat between Iran and Israel and attacks on US forces in the broader Middle East. If Erdoğan visits Washington in the coming months, Biden should offer the Turkish president enough incentives to strengthen Ankara’s balancing act and encourage a more restrained Iran. 

Doga Unlu is a research associate at The Cohen Group, where she advises defense and energy companies. Her portfolio also covers Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Further reading

Image: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi stands next to Iraqi Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a welcoming ceremony in Tehran, Iran, July 19, 2022. President Website/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS