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
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
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
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
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
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.