ISTANBUL (Reuter)–Turkish-Iranian relations took a turn for the worse on Friday when Iran demanded the withdrawal of two Turkish diplomats in retaliation for Turkey’s expulsion of an Iranian consul who criticized a secularist army commander.
The bilateral unease comes at a time when Turkey’s secularist military is putting pressure on the country’s first Islamist-led government to steer clear of harming the 73-year-old republic’s secular and democratic institutions.
The Turkish foreign ministry said Iran had told Ankara’s ambassador to Tehran and its consul-general in Orumiyeh that they could not work there any more.
"It is impossible not to wonder at the attitude of the Islamic Republic of Iran," it said in a statement. "There is no reason for us to withdraw our Tehran ambassador and Orumiyeh consul-general. Nevertheless–we will examine the demand."
The squabbling may endanger a $23-billion gas deal signed between the two countries last year in defiance of Washington. "In view of our energy needs–Iran is the most viable resource–but the political issue is another matter," energy ministry under-secretary Ugur Dogan told Reuters.
The two countries entered into a diplomatic row after Ankara protested to Tehran earlier in February about Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Reza Bagheri for his commen’s in favor of Islamic law at an Islamist rally in the Ankara district of Sincan.
Tanks toured Sincan several days after the protest in an apparent warning to Islamists from the secularist army.
Turkey’s generals are expected to warn the Islamist-right government over the Sincan affair and other Islamist incidents during a meeting with top ministers on Friday.
Tehran has withdrawn Ambassador Bagheri–although parliamentarians of the Islamist Welfare Party–the senior coalition partner–say the move is unrelated to the events surrounding the rally.
Erbakan worried secularist Turks and the West early in his eight-month tenure with overtures toTurkey’s big eastern neighbor. He went to Tehran on his first major foreign visit.
Analysts say the irony of Erbakan presiding over the latest tensions demonstrates the impossibility of the two neighbors ever working with full trust and cooperation despite having the best bilateral ties of the region.
Iran is the one bordering country with which Turkey has maintained stable relations–but this does not dispel the phobia that Tehran is out to destabilize the secular state.
There is also the more concrete fear that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) are getting support from Iran. Turkish security officials often say that the PKK attacks Turkish border posts from Iranian soil.
In the latest incident–Turkey on Thursday declared Iran’s Erzurum chief consul Saeede Zare `persona non grata’ following his attack on a senior military commander for criticizing Iran over its alleged support of the Kurds.
According to Anatolian news agency–Zare had accused the deputy chief of the Turkish armed forces–Cevik Bir–of "irresponsibility" for apparently describing Iran as a "terrorist" state. He has been asked to leave by the weekend.