Turkey said late Thursday that it had summoned the Iranian ambassador to register its objections to reports in the Iranian news media that linked a visit by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, late last month with the kingdom’s execution of a Shiite cleric.
The execution of the cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, among 47 men put to death on terrorism-related charges, and the subsequent sacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, ruptured relations between the Sunni monarchy in Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran, setting the region on edge.
On Friday, Iranians throughout the country turned out to protest the sheikh’s execution, chanting “Death to Al Saud,” a reference to the Saudi royal family, as well as the customary shouts of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement released late Thursday: “In a meeting today that took place with the Iranian ambassador at our ministry, we condemned the linking of our president’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia to the executions carried out in the country in articles published on media outlets linked to Iranian official bodies. We asked for such broadcasts to be terminated immediately.”
The diplomatic dust-up dragged Turkey into a crisis that has roiled the Middle East, rattled world financial markets and heightened sectarian tensions, the latest chapter in a longstanding power struggle between the regional players that has played out in the area’s many proxy wars, from Syria to Yemen to Iraq.
Turkey, a Sunni-majority country, has pursued an aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East in recent years in a bid to expand its influence and to position itself as the region’s leader of Sunni Islam. In doing so, it has sought to occupy a middle ground in the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As a number of Sunni-led countries in the region, including Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, sided with Saudi Arabia, Turkey sought to calm tensions by advocating dialogue and offering itself as a possible mediator.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, while condemning the sacking of the Saudi Embassy, warned that the tensions were “further enhancing antagonism in the region.” A spokesman for the Turkish government, Numan Kurtulmus, pointedly noted that Turkey does not have the death penalty — a veiled criticism of Saudi Arabia.
The rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran presents a challenge to Turkey, however, one that potentially jeopardizes its quest to play the regional peacemaker.
While Turkey is trying to rebuild its relationship with Riyadh — fractured during the Arab Spring, when Turkey supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Saudi Arabia opposed it — it also seeks to maintain some semblance of a relationship with Iran, despite the two countries supporting opposing sides of the civil war in Syria. Turkey, like Saudi Arabia, has supported Sunni rebels seeking the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, while Iran has been one of Mr. Assad’s chief supporters.
Turkey has gone to great lengths to compartmentalize its relationship with Iran, essentially walling off its rivalry over Syria while maintaining an important economic relationship. Turkey relies on Iran for natural gasimports, which have become more important in the wake of the breakdown in Ankara’s relations with Russia, another important energy supplier, over Turkey’s shooting down a Russian warplane in November.
Read more: NY Times