Iran’s fear is America’s opportunity

Tehran is terrified of an Israeli-Turkish rapprochement. The United States should exploit that fear.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Source: Twitter.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Source: Twitter.
Michael Doran
Michael Doran

Iran’s assassination plots are windows into its fears. On Feb. 11, the Turkish media reported that MİT, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, had foiled an attempt to assassinate Yair Geller, a Turkish-Israeli businessman. The plot was a response to the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the chief of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, in November 2020, allegedly at the hands of Israel’s Mossad. By targeting an Israeli-Turkish dual national on Turkish soil, Iran was also sowing seeds of discord between Ankara and Jerusalem.

If Iran’s assassins had completed their mission, the setback to Israeli-Turkish relations would indeed have been severe. Many in Israel have grown accustomed to thinking of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey as an enemy power, controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and inveterately hostile to the very existence of a Jewish state. In such an atmosphere, Tehran could reliably count on influential voices in Israel to interpret Geller’s murder as the direct result of Erdoğan’s policy of permitting Hamas leaders to operate on Turkish soil.

As it turned out, the plot had the opposite impact. Far from driving a wedge between Jerusalem and Ankara, it pushed them closer together. For his part, Geller cooperated enthusiastically in Erdoğan’s recent effort to improve relations with Jerusalem. Geller told the press that Mossad agents had encouraged him to return to Israel for safety, but that he had opted instead to stay in Istanbul, the city he loves. To Israelis, Geller’s statement transmitted trust in the Turkish authorities; to Turks, it showcased an Israeli who felt a bond of loyalty to Turkey.

In Tehran, the vision these messages conjure up is terrifying: a world in which Ankara and Jerusalem find common ground. What are the sources of this fear?

The plot against Geller probably first began percolating in Tehran immediately after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. In that conflict, Azerbaijan, the ally of Turkey and Israel, routed Armenia, the ally of Russia and Iran. Even seasoned observers failed to foresee the advantages state-of-the-art Turkish and Israeli technology had given to Azerbaijan.

Except for Armenia itself, no power was more shocked by these advantages than Iran. Ethnic Azerbaijanis account for around one-third of Iran’s population. A significant portion strongly identifies with Azerbaijan and sees Turkey and Israel as friends, not enemies. Leaders in Tehran already found unacceptable the loyalty that so many Iranian citizens feel toward Azerbaijan. To discover, in addition, that Azerbaijan also fields an army superior to Iran’s forces (an army, moreover, with deep ties to Iran’s regional rivals) was even more unbearable.

But Iran’s fears did not end there. Three weeks after the war ended, Israel eliminated Fakhrizadeh. That operation was but the latest in a string of operations, including acts of sabotage of Iran’s nuclear facilities and the capture of the archive of its nuclear weapons program, demonstrating Israel’s extraordinary reach into Iranian society. Few things stoke paranoia quite like being the top target of Mossad.

In other words, recent developments in Iran’s neighborhood have taught Tehran that Ankara and Jerusalem have the combined capacity to shake the Islamic Republic to its core. Thus far, however, an alignment between Ankara and Jerusalem has remained a purely theoretical possibility. Relations between the two have been abysmal for over a decade. The melding of Turkish and Israeli military technologies on display in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War was wholly the result of a solitary Azerbaijani initiative. As far as we know, the Turkish and Israeli militaries did not cooperate in any way to create the hybrid force that suddenly appeared on the battlefield in 2020.

Killing Geller was Tehran’s way of making sure that Turkey and Israel would not get any ideas about packaging the Azerbaijani model and marketing it elsewhere—in the United Arab Emirates, for example.

Through its Houthi proxy, Iran has recently targeted the UAE multiple times with ballistic missiles. Thanks to their military cooperation with the United States, the Emiratis have access to defensive systems that—so far, at least—have managed to prevent the worst, namely, a massacre of civilians in Abu Dhabi or Dubai on the scale of the 9/11 terror attacks. But the Emiratis are acutely aware that the Biden administration steadfastly refuses to blame Iran for the attacks, let alone to carry out acts of deterrence on behalf of America’s ally.

On the contrary, the Biden team is on the verge of completing the deal on Iran’s nuclear program that will reward the Islamic Republic handsomely and embolden its worst inclinations. The UAE and other allies of the United States are therefore well on the way to becoming defense orphans. At the moment, their only paths of recourse are to hedge toward Iran, China, or both.

But the Israeli-Turkish rapprochement has the potential to create a far more desirable alternative. If the rapprochement proceeds, the UAE could work with the Turks and the Israelis to create a deterrent capability. In this scenario, the Israelis would contribute their four-star military technology, including the Iron Dome missile-defense system, not to mention their unparalleled intelligence penetration of Iran, and their cyber capabilities. The Turks, meanwhile, would offer their geopolitical heft—a quality that no other regional power can match—combined with the exquisite weapons systems and military prowess that they transferred to the Azerbaijanis.

At the moment, this scenario is more of a gauzy dream than a concrete plan. But with each passing day, it becomes easier to imagine. The chances of the dream becoming reality would improve enormously if the United States would only relearn how to behave like a superpower. The Biden administration should drop its perverse courtship of Tehran and instead set to work strengthening the three-legged stool that supports America in the Middle East. One leg rests on Turkey; another on Israel, Egypt and Jordan; and the third on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms.

The Islamic Republic feeds on chaos. Stability is its greatest enemy. An anti-Iran alliance, consisting of Israel, Turkey and the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, is Tehran’s great fear—and therefore America’s golden opportunity.

Michael Doran is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East. 

This article was first published by The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East newsletter.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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