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Turkey's Patriot missiles drive a wedge between Ankara and Tehran

Turkey's decision to ask NATO for Patriot guided missiles to deploy along its border with Syria has disrupted its ties with Iran. A once-reliable ally of Tehran against the US-led West, Turkey has now seen the cancellation of the President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's scheduled visit to participate in the commemoration of the death of 13th century Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi; the invitation had been issued by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Before the cancellation of Ahmedinejad's visit, the head of Iran's armed forces, General Hassan Firouzabadi, criticised Turkey's role in connection with the missile deployment. "Each one of these Patriots is a black mark on the world map and is meant to cause a world war," warned the General. "They are making plans for a world war, and this is very dangerous for the future of humanity and for the future of Europe itself." His remarks conjured up images of the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis when the then-USSR tried to deploy missiles in Cuba by the then USSR leading to a nuclear war-threatening showdown with the USA.

As some analysts point out, Iran is worried that once the Patriot batteries are installed, a Turkey free of threats from Syrian air strikes would be emboldened to escalate support for the opposition in Syria. This would, in turn, pose a grave threat to the survival of the pro-Iranian government of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. It was, therefore, unsurprising that Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's Foreign Minister, followed up the General's warning with an unambiguous statement in support of Assad. Iran, he insisted, would do everything in its power to thwart foreign efforts aimed at "regime change in Syria". In fact, Iran considers Syria as a lynchpin of the "axis of resistance" against Israel, which also, claims Salehi, includes the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestine's Hamas.

Furthermore, Russian commentators argue that the deployment of Patriot missiles on the Turkish-Syria border is a greater threat to Tehran than to Damascus. Russia's Kommarsant daily quoted a Russian diplomatic source as saying, "Turkey has explained its request to NATO as exclusively related to its need to defend itself from a possible attack from the Syrian army. But there could be a second motivation for this action, which is a preparation for military strike against Iran."

The six Patriot batteries being drawn from NATO members Germany, the Netherlands and the US will lead to the deployment on Syria's doorstep of around 400 German, 360 Dutch and 400 US soldiers, raising Turkey's war readiness to a higher level. In fact, the militarisation of the border, and the threat it poses to Syria and Iran, appears to be generating a momentum for closer ties between Moscow and Tehran. While talking with NATO's Secretary-General Anders Fog Rasmussen, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavarov warned that "any provocation may trigger a very serious conflict".

Against this backdrop, Turkey's missile deployment will, undoubtedly, escalate tensions between the two prominent neighbours and likely lead to closer relations between Iran and Russia, thereby putting strains on the hitherto prevailing balance of power in the region. It will also motivate the US to increase its presence and forge closer ties across the Middle East to counter Russia's rising influence.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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