Insight 203: Iran, Turkey and the Historical Ties that Bind


Insight 203: Iran, Turkey and the Historical Ties that Bind

25 Mar 2019

This paper suggests that the history of Iran–Turkey relations is one of secularisation, notwithstanding the intense religious wars that consumed them in the early 16th century and their recent antagonistic projects in places like Syria. Shi’a Iran and the Sunni Ottoman Turks signed their first treaty in 1555 and recognised each other despite sectarian differences. Subsequently, 10 years before the establishment of the Westphalian state system, the two parties signed a treaty emphasising the principle of non-interference in each other’s affairs and respect for territorial sovereignty. Iran–Turkey relations thereafter closely mirrored the development of European ideas about territorial sovereignty and non-sectarianism in international relations. The paper concludes that, given this history of secularisation, Iran and Turkey are likely to manage their inter-state contention in the long haul.



By Sabri Ates

One of the anomalies of the Syrian war is Iran and Turkey’s seeming cooperation. This is happening despite their pursuit of diametrically opposing agendas. Iran has been a staunch supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Turkey is a staunch supporter of the Syrian opposition, which includes groups that deem Iran a neo-Safavid entity deceitfully trying to finish what the two Shi’a revolutions of the past (1501 and 1979) failed to do, that is, establishing Shi’a supremacy in the Middle East. For some time, Turkish dailies like the government mouthpiece Yeni Safak were trying hard to convince the Turkish populace that the endgame of Iran and its Shi’a minions is not only to dominate the Middle East, but conquer Mecca and Medina as well. With their neo-Ottoman hubris in full swing, the sons of the Ottomans were not going to let this happen. Yet, to many observers’ surprise, Iran and Turkey, under the gaze of big brother Russia, put their differences aside and are now cautiously cooperating in Syria.

No doubt, their shared antagonism towards the United States and its presence in Eastern Syria makes this unholy trinity stick together. However, there is another factor behind this cooperation possible: Iran and Turkey’s shared antagonism towards the sizeable Kurdish minority in each country and the Kurds’ demands in the larger Middle East. This became clearer in their cooperation in choking the Kurdish referendum movement in Iraqi Kurdistan. Another temporarily autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, Afrin, is now under Turkey and its allies’ control, with the blessings of Russia and Iran. These developments put a temporary break on the intense anti-Shi’a, anti-Iranian rhetoric of the pro-government press in Turkey.[1]

While Turkey extends its protection to a variety of Sunni groups in Syria, since the beginning of the Syrian and Bahraini uprisings Tehran has accelerated its decidedly Shi’a global mobilisation. According to various press reports, Iran arms, trains, and equips militia from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan à la Hezbollah. Lured by the sectarian pitch of protecting the Shi’a holy sites in Syria and beyond, or, in the case of Iraq, the promise of defending the country and its people against the Islamic movement ISIS, those groups help strengthen sectarian boundaries and the sectarian affiliations of the communities they belong to. Reports about Iran’s attempts at changing population dynamics in favour of Shi’a or affiliated groups in parts of Syria,[2] and Shi’a popular mobilisation and its multi-dimensional consequences, including the domination of the Iraqi state, are a daily news feature.

The sectarian animosity reached its ugly climax with the rise of ISIS. In their propaganda leaflets and videos, the jihadists have been referring to Iraq as Bilad al-Rafidayn or the land of those who reject the path of Sunnah, and Iraq as the Safavid Iraq, in reference to the Safavid dynasty that successfully turned Iran into a Shi’a majority land between 1501 and 1722. Iran, as to be expected, is the Safavid Empire reincarnated in this mindset. The jihadists are not alone in this respect. The Qatar-based influential Sunni cleric Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi and the Muslim Scholars Association of Lebanon, to give two examples, voiced similar opinions. Qaradawi issued a fatwa labelling Hezbollah and Iran, the supporters of the Syrian government, enemies of Islam, “more infidel than Jews and Christians”, while the Sunni clerics of Lebanon urged their co-sectarians to support the Syrian Sunni rebels lest the Safavi project spread.[3]

To a historian’s ears, the words of Qaradawi and the likes are eerily familiar. They are part and parcel of a strand of politics and what Charles Tilly called a repertoire of contention. Like a script staged over and over by theatre troupes, such fatwas, declarations, and acts that follow share common characteristics that are put into the service of political actors time and again.[4] Depending on the politicians’ use of this repertoire, this legacy provides us with two alternative scenarios of future co-existence in the Middle East: an increasingly prevalent sectarian animosity that dominates decision making and threatens the delicate balance of power in the region; or, a non-sectarian, secular, state-to-state co-existence based on international law which privileges national interests over sectarian identities. A brief analysis of Ottoman–Iranian relations shows that the region has a veritable repertoire of both perspectives to rely on.


Legacies of Sectarianism

When the Iranian ruler Nadir Shah Afshar sued for peace with the Ottomans after the disintegration of the Safavid state in the 1730s, he reportedly lamented, “How much time has the family of ʿUthman since the reign of Selim spent mobilising troops, expending wealth, and destroying lives in order to halt the cursing of the first three caliphs?”[5] His words refer to a long-running Ottoman grievance, namely, the ritual cursing (tabarraʿ), by the Safavid Shi’as, of the companions of the Prophet, including his wife Aisha, and the first three caliphs, for not supporting the Prophet’s cousin Ali as his successor. Ottoman requests for the cessation of this practice, and its defiant continuation, made it a sine qua non of Ottoman–Iranian negotiations and treaties from 1555 to 1823. A longue durée look at these negotiations could let us follow the trajectory of the secularisation of Ottoman–Iranian relations.

The Ottomans and Safavids started their reigns almost around the same time, the former as a temporal worldly dynasty and the latter as a religious brotherhood. The transformation of the Safaviya sufi order into a militarised band of warriors is one of the most consequential political revolutions in pre-modern global history. The messianic appeal of the Safavid leader Shah Ismail (r. 1501–1524) and his adherents’ zeal presented grave political challenges for Istanbul’s authority in the form of pro-Safavid political mobilisation and various pro-Safavid revolts. Meanwhile, in Iran, persecution caused a widespread exodus of Sunnis to the Ottoman Empire and Mughal India, while the Safavids were locked in a deadly sectarian rivalry with the Uzbeks. Very much like the contemporaneous European wars of religion, those geo-sectarian rivalries threw Western Eurasia into a period of religious wars that still cast a long shadow over the Middle East.

In 1511–1512, in danger of losing Anatolia to pro-Safavid rebels, Ottoman religious and military leaders took decisive action. The highest Sunni religious authority of the time, Mufti Hamza, declared the Safavids and their followers to be apostates, worse than infidels. He affirmed that it was permissible and even incumbent upon Muslims to kill their men and divide their goods, women, and children, and pronounced that any holy warrior who died in this pursuit would be considered a martyr. Emboldened by such fatwas, Sultan Selim (r. 1512–1520) marched towards Iran. He defeated Shah Ismail but was not able to crush the nascent Safavid state.

The Safavids provided Selim with an excuse to confront another Muslim rival, the Sunni Mamluks of Egypt. Accusing their ruler, Kansuh al-Ghawr, of forming an alliance with the heretic shah, Selim defeated the Mamluks, bringing Egypt, the greater Syria, and, more importantly, Mecca and Medina under Ottoman suzerainty. Ruling Mecca and Medina was of symbolic importance, allowing the Ottoman establishment to claim the championship of Islam and the universal caliphate. This was also the beginning of what many have described as the Sunniisation of the Ottoman Empire that accompanied the ongoing Shi’isation of Iran. From then on religious animosity remained an unchanging facet of relations between the Ottoman Empire and the dynasties ruling Iran. Their “deviant” half-brothers to the east provided the Ottomans with an opportunity to show what the straight path was and who strayed from it. Their worldview was shaped by Safavid religious and geopolitical challenges to their authority, including their hegemony over Mecca, Medina, and more importantly Baghdad, while the Safavids’ worldview was shaped by Sunni Ottoman (and Uzbek) challenges to their sovereignty.

The sectarian rivalry was taken one step further by Selim’s son, Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566), and Ismail’s son, Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–1576). Wanting to take advantage of post-Ismail disorganisation in Iran, Suleiman started a period of campaigns against Iran. Two of the most influential religious authorities of his long reign stepped in to clear the way. The famous Ottoman chronicler and Sheikh al-Islam Kemâlpaşazâde published a variety of pamphlets and fatwas declaring war against the Shi’as to be the highest jihad and condemning Shah Ismail and his followers as apostates and heretics whose “possessions, women and children would be considered spoils” and whose men  “should be killed unless they become Muslims.”[6] Kemâlpaşazâde’s successor, the famed Ottoman Sheikh al-Islam Ebu’s-su‘ud, issued similar anti- Shi’a fatwas.

While the Ottomans issued such fatwas, anti-Ottoman propaganda reached its peak during the time of Shah Tahmasb, when the tabarraʿ become institutionalised. In the Safavid capital, Qazvin, Tahmasb would himself interrupt Friday prayers so that a Shi’a preacher could ascend to the pulpit to vilify Ali’s enemies, or the Sunnis. Persecution of Sunnis was accompanied by an aggressive promotion of Shi’ism. Preventing the official cursing ceremonies, therefore, became a constant of negotiations between the Ottomans and Iranians in the following period. Suleiman carried out four major campaigns against Iran between 1533 and 1554, rebuffing Tahmasb’s offers of reconciliation and arguing that he was required by law, religion, reason, and the fatwas of the learned and pious to remove the shah from power.


A Fractious Peace

Following many libellous exchanges, the Safavids and Ottomans signed their first political treaty in Amasya, on 21 May 1555. The treaty marked the first time the Ottomans recognised the Safavids as a legitimate entity. Significantly, this is the year that the Treaty of Augsburg was signed officially establishing the legal basis for the existence of Protestant and Catholic sovereigns in the Holy Roman Empire. Similarly, with the Amasya Treaty, Safavid Iran and the Ottoman Empire acknowledged each other’s respective domains. However, neither the treaty of Amasya nor that of Augsburg put an end to the religio-political confrontations they sought to ameliorate. In both cases, confrontations, sometimes bloodier than ever, continued.

After 30 years of war (1618–48), in which religion played a primary role, the European states established what has been called the Westphalian state system of 1648. A decade earlier, following more than 10 years of confrontation, the Ottomans and Safavids signed the Treaty of Zohab in 1639. Very much like the Westphalian system this treaty emphasised the principle of non-interference in each other’s affairs and territorial sovereignty. Indeed, the peace this treaty brought lasted for some seven decades.

However, when the Afghan occupation of Iran and the end of Safavid rule overturned the West Asian order suddenly, Istanbul did not hesitate to disregard the previous treaties. The 1639 frontiers were abruptly obliterated, resulting in years of renewed upheaval. Before the Ottoman forces marched towards Iran, Sultan Ahmed III (r. 1703–1730), like his predecessors, obtained fatwas legalising the killing of the Shi’a men who refused to become Muslims and declaring war against the apostate Safavids superior to jihad against infidels. With such fatwas that basically quoted a long tradition of fatwas, or the fatwa repertoire, the secularisation of the relationship that previous treaties brought about took a major blow.

Yet, to the detriment of the Ottomans, the Iranians soon recovered from the Safavid disintegration. Under the enigmatic Nadir Shah Afshar, they were able to push the Ottomans back and forced them to accept Iranian territorial sovereignty based on the treaties of 1555 and 1639. The Treaty of Kurdan in 1746 defined a new basis for relations between Iran and the Ottomans. That basis was a secular, state-to-state co-existence based on territorial sovereignty.



With the rise of a new dynasty, the Qajar, at the turn of the 18th century, and its attempts to establish hegemony over most Safavid-controlled lands, a new era of Ottoman–Iranian antagonism began, in which borderlands emerged as the most contentious matter. In the early 1820s, taking advantage of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans, two ambitious Qajar princes tried, unsuccessfully, to expand Iranian frontiers at the expense of the Ottomans.

Following this period of less-known contention in the 1820s, similar to the Concert of Europe, the Ottomans and Iranians established a process that started less than a decade after the Congress of Vienna. The parties signed what could be called the First Treaty of Erzurum in 1823. Concluded after two years of confrontations, the treaty marked a turning point in Ottoman–Iranian relations: it sidestepped Shi’a–Sunni points of contention and instead highlighted Islamic brotherhood. Emphasis was placed not on their religio-sectarian frontier but on their geographical limits.

Yet, less than two decades after their sporadic and inconclusive war of 1821–1822, Tehran and Istanbul were again at loggerheads due to rising tension on their borderlands. While the parties were preparing for a new confrontation in 1840, the two dominant imperialist powers of the time intervened. As a result of the intense diplomatic activity of Russian and British representatives in Tehran and Istanbul, the two Muslim powers agreed to a negotiated resolution of their problems and to settle their frontiers for good. Consequently, Ottoman and Iranian diplomats and technical teams, accompanied by their British and Russian counterparts, set out to inscribe the idea of fixed boundaries on the two states and the inhabitants of the borderlands, transforming an imprecise and constantly shifting frontier into a clearly defined and increasingly monitored border. The long and arduous process of boundary making — lasting nearly seven decades from 1843 to 1914 — ended the liminal space that Iran had occupied in the Ottoman worldview. Iran was no more the abode of war to be subjugated but a neighbouring state like any other.



The secularisation of Ottoman–Iranian relations was now effectively completed and sanctioned by the dominant international balance of power. Seen from this perspective, the history of the Ottomans and dynasties ruling over Iran is a history of the gradual secularisation of their inter-state relations, which reached its climax during the authoritarian regimes of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Reza Shah. The reversal came with the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 that made Iran a country ruled according to Shi’a Islamic jurisprudence and governed by clerics. A year later, despite their avowedly Kemalist declarations, the Turkish generals carried out a coup d’état whereby state policy in Turkey became what has since been called the Turkish–Islamic synthesis. One could argue that it is this synthesis that gifted the world Turkey’s ruling religio–nationalist party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP). With an agenda of further (Sunni) Islamising the country, and a not-so-hidden neo-Ottomanist foreign policy, the ground for a return to sectarianism against an increasingly Shi’a Iran is being made increasingly fertile in Turkey. Developments surrounding the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS, and the emerging tensions between Turkey and its allies on the one hand and Iran and its allies on the other (not to mention the tension between Iran and the Saudi coalition) are threatening the process of secularisation that has this long history behind it.



Sabri Ates is an Associate Professor in the History Department of the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He is the author of The Ottoman–Iranian Borderlands: Making a Boundary, 1843-1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2013).



[1]    My observations here are based on the Turkish press; the Iranian press and rhetoric have not been considered.

[2]    Martin Chulow, “Iran repopulates Syria with Shi’a Muslims to help tighten regime’s control,” Guardian, January 13, 2017.

[3]   Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad, “Sunni Cleric Issues Appeal for World’s Muslims to Help Syrian Rebels,” The New York Times, June 1, 2013,

[4]    Charles Tilly, Contentious Performances (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[5]    Ernest Tucker, Nadir Shah’s Quest for Legitimacy in Post-Safavid Iran (Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2006), 91.

[6]   For these fatwas see Adel Allouche, The Origins and Development of the Ottoman-Safavid Conflict (906-962/1500-1555) (Berlin: K. Schwarz Verlag, 1983), 111-112.