An odd partnership is taking shape in the Middle East, where Iran and Turkey - two countries that have historically been strategic competitors - are suddenly making common cause.
The development is as unusual as it is significant. As the scholar Daniel Pipes has noted, the relationship between Turkey and Iran might just be the Middle East's most enduring geopolitical rivalry. For hundreds of years, the two countries have competed for - and fought wars over - territory and influence throughout the expanse of the Middle East and Eurasia.
Today, despite comparatively robust bilateral trade, that hostility still persists. Iran's leaders are wary of Turkey's role in NATO, and resentful of Ankara's ideological designs on the Caucasus and Central Asia - areas that Tehran itself covets. Turkey, for its part, has watched Iran's growing regional activism with mounting trepidation, even going so far as to recently begin work on a new "security wall" designed to prevent potential Iranian-instigated infiltration across the common border between the two countries.
Yet Tehran and Ankara now appear to be drifting into tenuous strategic alignment.
In mid-August, a high-level delegation of Iranian military officials led by the country's Chief of Military Staff, General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, traveled to Ankara on a very public state visit. The result was the signing of a new strategic pact between the two countries.
Ostensibly, the agreement is intended to "boost military cooperation" against the Islamic State terrorist group, which both countries are fighting in Syria. In reality, however, the new arrangement has everything to do with a wholly different problem: that of Kurdish independence.
On September 25th, Iraq's autonomous northern Kurdish region, known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), will hold a formal referendum on independence. The measure is in many ways a culmination of a building "Kurdish moment" propelled by the increasingly assertive - and effective - role that has been played by Kurdish peshmerga militias in the fight against the Islamic State. Over the last three years, these guerrillas have distinguished themselves as some of the most capable forces in the anti-ISIS fight, garnering the gratitude (if not the unequivocal support) of the United States and other powers in the process. Not surprisingly, a greater sense of political empowerment has followed.
This won't be the first time Kurds have floated the idea of greater self-determination, of course. Back in 2005, against the backdrop of post-Saddam political chaos in Iraq, the KRG held a similar (albeit non-binding) referendum on self-rule as a trial balloon of sorts for the eventual creation of an independent Kurdish state. The results were, for all intents and purposes, unanimous: the measure passed with over 99 percent of the vote.
Today, with Iraq's central government still deeply fragmented, but with the Kurds now far more empowered, a similar outcome is all but guaranteed. That spells trouble for Turkey and Iran, both of whom have sizeable Kurdish minorities of their own. (Kurds are estimated to account for nearly one-fifth of Turkey's 80 million-person population, and more than 10 percent of Iran's nearly 83 million citizens.) As a result, Ankara and Tehran justifiably fear that movement toward self-determination by Iraq's Kurds could spark similar momentum among their own Kurdish contingents.
Such worries have already led both countries to redouble their efforts to suppress potential Kurdish irredentism within their own borders. Thus, as part of its ongoing purge of political opponents in the aftermath of last year's failed coup attempt, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken pains to tighten already onerous limitations on the practice of Kurdish culture and traditions. "The aim of the government is very clear," one journalist has explained to the New York Times. "The policy is to end the Kurdish political movement and the wider Kurdish culture."
Iran is doing much the same. As the U.S. Department of State notes in its most recent report on international religious freedom, Iran's Kurds - like a number of other minorities within the Islamic Republic - routinely experience "repression by the judiciary and security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention, as well as discrimination, including suppression of religious rights, lack of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects."
But such measures might be just the beginning. Given their historical animus, an enduring alliance between Turkey and Iran simply isn't in the offing. Yet, as recent developments suggest, shared fears of Kurdish empowerment could well nudge Tehran and Ankara into what is at least a temporary tactical alliance - one that is built in large part around countering the Kurds.