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Afghanistan: Iran Opposes Turkey's Military Support Of War

  • Michael Lelyveld

Iran argued unsuccessfully against Turkey's decision to send troops in support of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. The dispute marks Tehran's second rift with Ankara over its military movement in a little over two months.

Boston, 7 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iran tried unsuccessfully yesterday to find common ground with Turkey after failing to dissuade it from committing troops to the war against terror in Afghanistan.

At a press conference in Ankara with his Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi openly argued against Turkey's decision on 5 November to commit special forces to the conflict.

"The deployment of foreign troops in Afghanistan would aggravate the situation and make the situation even worse," Kharrazi said.

Kharrazi, who arrived with an Iranian delegation the night of 5 November, said: "Let's leave the solution to the Afghanistan problem to its own people." He added: "In general, Afghans don't prefer foreign countries to interfere with their business."

But Cem defended his government policy, saying: "Of course, Mr. Kharrazi may have different views on the subject." He added that Turkish troops will never be used to attack Afghanistan, saying: "On the contrary, [they] are a force to contribute to help save the Afghan people from terrorism."

The Turkish team, of 90 special forces trained in mountain combat, represents the first contingent from an Islamic country in the U.S.-led alliance against Afghanistan's Taliban. In announcing the decision on 5 November, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said in remarks quoted by Turkey's Anadolu news agency: "We have decided to send military troops to Afghanistan upon request of the United States. We did not have to send military troops to Afghanistan. We have made this decision of our own will."

Iran's official news agency IRNA played down the rift with Turkey and omitted Kharrazi's critical remarks. IRNA reported only that the Iranian foreign minister called his talks with Cem "positive" and offered neutral statements about cooperation and hopes for a deepening of ties once Iran starts pumping gas to Turkey under a frequently delayed $20 billion deal.

In October, Turkish press reports held out the expectation that the gas deliveries could start in mid-December, but the reports from Kharrazi's visit did not specify any date.

Iran's major concerns with the Turkish deployment appear to be about power and isolation. Turkish forces, no matter how small, raise security issues in the region once they start moving from Iran's west to its east. In an interview with AP on 5 November, Kharrazi argued that both the United States and Afghanistan's neighbors should be barred from any future peacekeeping forces for the country. Kharrazi said such a force "should be composed of countries that do not have any specific interests in Afghanistan."

But the principle of non-interference may be a tricky one for Iran, which has supplied arms and assistance to the forces fighting the Taliban for years. Tehran may also feel that its strategic ties to Moscow have weakened because of its support for the United States since the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

Iran's dispute with Turkey over military movements is the second in recent months. Tensions increased over the summer after Iran sent a warship to eject two Azerbaijani research vessels from disputed Caspian Sea waters on 23 July. A month later, on 25 August, Turkey sent an air force squadron to participate in a show in Baku, signaling its support for Azerbaijan. Iran soon softened its rhetoric on the Caspian issue, perhaps realizing that it had only increased the chance of drawing a NATO ally nearer to its northern border.

Tehran's reaction to Turkey's troop decision seems to be motivated by similar fears of encirclement. But the country's policies have been too inconsistent to give it much comfort on any side.