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The Escalating Tensions: A Three-Way Fight Between Turkey, Iran, and Israel

Image by Nikhil Chandwani
Image by Nikhil Chandwani

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is witnessing a significant transformation with escalating tensions among Turkey, Iran, and Israel. These three nations, each with distinct historical, political, and ideological backgrounds, are increasingly finding themselves at odds. This triadic conflict is not just a matter of regional power dynamics but also carries substantial implications for global politics. My today’s opinion piece delves into the underlying causes of the escalating tensions, the recent developments fueling the conflict, and the potential future scenarios.

Historical Context and Rivalries

To understand the current state of affairs, it is crucial to explore the historical context and the underlying rivalries between these nations.

Turkey: Historically, Turkey, under the Ottoman Empire, held significant influence over much of the Middle East. The modern Turkish state, established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, initially pursued a secular and Western-oriented foreign policy. However, under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has increasingly adopted a more assertive and sometimes confrontational stance in regional affairs, aiming to reassert its influence.

Iran: Iran, the heartland of the ancient Persian Empire, has a long history of rivalry with the Ottoman Empire, and by extension, modern Turkey. The 1979 Islamic Revolution transformed Iran into a theocratic Islamic Nation with ambitions of spreading its Islamic ideals and increasing its influence in the region, often clashing with both Arab states and Israel.

Israel: Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has faced continuous hostility from many of its neighbors. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a core issue, but Israel has also engaged in numerous conflicts with Arab states. While Israel and Turkey once enjoyed a relatively cordial relationship, particularly during the latter half of the 20th century, this relationship has soured significantly under Erdoğan’s rule.

Recent Developments and Escalations

The past few years have seen a series of developments that have exacerbated the tensions among Turkey, Iran, and Israel.

Turkey’s Assertiveness and Economic Corridors: Under Erdoğan, Turkey has pursued a more aggressive foreign policy. This includes military interventions in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, as well as confrontational actions in the Eastern Mediterranean regarding gas exploration rights. Turkey’s support for various Islamic Jihadist militants, including some Palestinian factions opposed to Israel, has further strained its relations with both Israel and some Arab states.

Additionally, Turkey has been actively promoting itself as an economic corridor linking Europe and Asia. The development of infrastructure projects like the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in cooperation with untrustworthy China aims to position Turkey as a key transit hub for energy and trade. This economic ambition, while beneficial for Turkey’s economy, has also led to friction with Iran and Israel, who view Turkey’s growing influence with suspicion.

Iran’s Regional Ambitions and Insecurities: Iran’s involvement in Syria, support for Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, and backing of Houthi rebels in Yemen reflect its strategy to create a ‘Shiite Crescent’ of influence stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean. Iran’s nuclear ambitions and ballistic missile program have also alarmed Israel, which views these developments as existential threats.

Iran’s insecurities stem from both internal and external pressures. Internally, Iran faces significant economic challenges due to international sanctions and domestic mismanagement. The government also has to contend with periodic social unrest and opposition from various ethnic and political groups. Externally, the presence of US military forces in the region, the normalization of relations between Israel and several Arab states, and the ongoing conflict in neighboring countries all contribute to Iran’s sense of encirclement and vulnerability.

Israel’s Security Concerns and Diplomatic Efforts: Israel has responded to these threats with a combination of diplomatic, intelligence, and military actions. The Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and several Arab states, represent a significant diplomatic shift aimed at countering Iranian influence. Militarily, Israel has conducted numerous airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria and has reportedly been involved in covert operations targeting Iran’s nuclear program.

In this complex scenario, Israel has managed to position itself as a relatively stable and prosperous nation amidst regional turmoil. Israel’s advancements in technology, economy, and military capabilities have earned it recognition as a key player in the Middle East. Despite war with Palestine and global pressure to stop the war, Israel is relatively having it easy in comparison to Iran and Turkey.

The Triangular Conflict: Key Flashpoints

Several key flashpoints illustrate the intensity of the three-way conflict between Turkey, Iran, and Israel.

Syria: Syria remains a major battleground. Turkey has conducted multiple military operations against Kurdish groups in northern Syria, which it views as terrorist organizations. Iran, on the other hand, has provided substantial support to the Assad regime, seeking to maintain its influence in the region. Israel has frequently targeted Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria to prevent the establishment of a hostile front on its northern border.

Iraq: In Iraq, the power vacuum left by the US withdrawal has been filled by competing influences. Turkey has targeted Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, while Iran-backed militias have gained significant power, often clashing with US forces and allies. Israel, concerned about the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups, has also reportedly conducted airstrikes in Iraq.

Eastern Mediterranean: The Eastern Mediterranean has become another arena of conflict, primarily between Turkey and Israel (and by extension Greece and Cyprus). Disputes over maritime boundaries and energy exploration rights have led to heightened tensions, with Turkey conducting naval exercises and drilling operations in contested waters.

Palestinian Territories: The Israeli-Palestinian war remains a core issue at the moment. Turkey’s vocal support for Hamas and condemnation of Israeli air strikes have further strained relations. Iran, too, has provided support to Palestinian militants, though its influence is more pronounced in Gaza than in the West Bank.

Factors Driving the Escalation

Several factors contribute to the escalating tensions among Turkey, Iran, and Israel.

Ideological Conflicts: The ideological differences between these nations play a significant role. Turkey, under Erdoğan, promotes a vision of political Islam that often aligns with Islamist groups in the region. Iran’s Shia theocracy seeks to export its revolutionary ideology, while Israel remains a Jewish state committed to secular governance and democratic values. However, the war in Palestine has changed everything. Hamas are milking all the attention they’re receiving and although it may seem Turkey and Iran are finally on same page, the reality is otherwise.

Power Vacuums and Proxy Wars: The power vacuums created by the decline of traditional Arab power centers and the partial withdrawal of US influence have provided opportunities for these nations to expand their influence through proxy wars and direct interventions.

National Security Concerns: Each nation perceives existential threats from the actions of the others. Israel views Iran’s nuclear program and regional activities as direct threats to its survival. Israel wants Iran backed Hamas to surrender unconditionally. Iran sees Israel’s military actions, war in Palestine and alliances as attempts to contain and weaken it. Turkey perceives Kurdish movements and regional rivalries as threats to its territorial integrity and regional aspirations.

Domestic Politics: Domestic political considerations also drive foreign policy decisions. Erdoğan’s nationalist and Islamist rhetoric bolsters his domestic support, while Iran’s leadership uses external conflicts to unite its population against perceived external threats. In Israel, security concerns are a significant factor in electoral politics, influencing both domestic and foreign policy decisions.

International Reactions and Implications

The international community, including major powers like the United States, Russia, China and India as well as the European Union, has significant stakes in the outcome of this triangular conflict.

United States: The US has traditionally been a strong ally of Israel and has imposed severe sanctions on Iran. However, its relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally, has become increasingly complicated due to Erdoğan’s policies. The Biden administration has attempted to balance these relationships while addressing the broader challenges in the region.

Russia: Russia has cultivated close ties with both Iran and Turkey, leveraging its involvement in Syria to enhance its influence in the region. Russia’s primary interest lies in maintaining stability while ensuring its strategic and economic interests are protected.

China: China has adopted a more neutral stance, focusing on economic investments and securing energy supplies from the region. However, its growing presence and investments in the Middle East mean it has a vested interest in regional stability.

India; India has traditionally maintained a balanced and nuanced approach to the Middle East, fostering strong bilateral relations with Turkey, Iran, and Israel. India values its strategic partnership with Israel, particularly in defense, technology, and intelligence sharing, while also depending on Iran for energy supplies and as a gateway to Central Asia through the Chabahar port project. Concurrently, India has sought to engage with Turkey on various fronts, despite occasional diplomatic strains. India’s primary interest lies in regional stability, which is essential for ensuring the safety of its large diaspora in the Middle East and securing uninterrupted energy supplies.

European Union: The EU has expressed concerns over Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and its human rights record. It has also been involved in diplomatic efforts to address Iran’s nuclear program through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Future Scenarios and Potential Outcomes

The future of the three-way conflict between Turkey, Iran, and Israel is fraught with uncertainties. Several scenarios could unfold, each with distinct implications for the region and the world.

Escalation to Open Conflict: The most alarming scenario is a full-scale war involving these nations. Given their military capabilities, such a conflict could be devastating and potentially draw in other regional and global powers, leading to a broader conflagration.

Continued Proxy Wars and Low-Intensity Conflicts: Another scenario is the continuation of proxy wars and low-intensity conflicts. This would involve ongoing skirmishes in Syria, Iraq, and other contested areas, with occasional escalations but no direct large-scale confrontations. However, ever since Iran’s direct attack on Israel in April, the proxy war seems to take a step back.

Realignment of Alliances: Shifts in alliances and regional power dynamics could also occur. For instance, further normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states could alter the strategic landscape, while changes in leadership in any of the three nations could lead to policy shifts. Will Saudi Arabia and its’ ally offer direct support to Israel against Iran? We will explore this answer in our next article.

Conclusion

As tensions continue to simmer among Turkey, Iran, and Israel, the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East remain in a state of flux. Think of it as a high-stakes game of geopolitical chess, where everyone is moving pieces, some under the table and others with a grand flourish, and no one seems to be getting anywhere near checkmate.

Turkey: Picture Erdoğan as the ambitious player who’s decided that flipping the board might be a viable strategy. His assertive foreign policy, coupled with ambitions to turn Turkey into an economic corridor, has him marching troops here, drilling there, and throwing verbal jabs everywhere. He’s the player who’s trying to do a bit of everything, hoping that something sticks. His efforts to position Turkey as a key transit hub for energy and trade are undoubtedly bold, but his support for Islamist terrorists and confrontations over gas exploration rights have ruffled more than a few feathers​

Iran: Iran, on the other hand, is the player who brought a secret stash of extra pieces. With its support for Hezbollah, involvement in Syria, and backing of the Houthis, Iran’s strategy resembles a multi-layered, complex game of influence. Its nuclear ambitions add a touch of the dramatic—like suddenly revealing a hidden queen on the board. However, Iran’s actions are driven by deep insecurities, both internal and external, and a desire to maintain its influence while countering what it sees as existential threats from Israel and the West.

Israel: Israel, meanwhile, is the player who’s always on high alert, ready to counter any move with precision. Its recent airstrikes and covert operations against Iranian targets show a nation that takes its security very seriously. Yet, amidst the turmoil, Israel has managed to secure alliances, advance technologically, and maintain a stable economy. It’s the player who, despite the odds, keeps reinforcing its defenses and occasionally making bold moves that shift the game’s dynamics​.

The International Arena: The international players—US, Russia, China, and the EU—are like the observers who occasionally lean over to offer advice or push a piece. The US supports Israel and maintains a complicated relationship with Turkey, while Russia and China focus on their strategic interests without getting their hands too dirty. The EU, meanwhile, watches with a mix of concern and frustration, issuing statements and attempting diplomacy like a referee in a particularly unruly match​.

The Future: So, where does this leave us? More proxy wars? Likely. A few rounds of intense diplomacy? Hopefully. An unexpected alliance or two? Don’t rule it out. The Middle East, as ever, remains a region where the only certainty is uncertainty.

In a lighter vein, let’s imagine if these countries took a page from the reality TV playbook: “Geopolitical Big Brother: Middle East Edition.” Tune in next week to see if Erdoğan’s latest military maneuver gets voted out of the house, or if Iran’s clandestine strategies win the secret immunity idol. Israel might just win the public vote for best defense strategy, and the international community, the bewildered audience, keeps wondering, “Can’t we all just get along?”

In all seriousness, the stakes are incredibly high, and the world watches with bated breath as these three powerhouses navigate a complex and often perilous geopolitical landscape. Here’s hoping cooler heads prevail and we avoid turning the chessboard over entirely.

About the Author
Nikhil Chandwani is an author of 13 Books, TED(x) Speaker, and Founder- Writers' Rescue Centre. He was recently awarded the Rashtriya Gaurav Award in 2019 (The Indian National Award) for excellence in social entrepreneurship. His firm, Writers' Rescue Centre has given voice to over 211 individuals in India through a Gurukul System. Nikhil is also a Visiting Professor with leading Indian Universities.
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