An internet meme has been circulating on Twitter with a caption from A Haber, the famous pro-government news channel. The meme reads: US: Iran downed the plane; Canada: Iran downed the plane; Iran: we downed the plane; Turkey: the United States downed the plane.

The meme reflected the general sentiment about how the latest developments in and about Iran resonated with many in Turkey.

Iran has always been in some ways an adversary and in other ways a friend to Turkey throughout their history. In contemporary slang, the two could be described as “frenemies.” The border between the old Safavid and Ottoman empires was determined by the Zuhab agreement nearly 500 years ago and has not changed since then. The Safavid and Qajar empires that ruled Persian land were of Turkic origin and spoke Turkish in their palaces. On the other hand, the Ottomans were heavily influenced by Persian language and culture. 

The Ottomans would occasionally perceive the Alevi population in Anatolia as potential allies of the Persian Shah; on the Iranian side, the Turkish-speaking population of Iran was perceived as a potential Achilles heel. 

One of the first leaders to visit the young Turkish Republic under Ataturk’s rule was the Iranian leader Reza Shah. He spoke Turkish during his visit, and the young Turkey presented him with an opera in Turkish composed specially for him as a manifestation of Turkish-Iranian friendship.

With the arrival of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, relations soured between the two neighbors. “Will Turkey soon be like Iran?” has been one of the most-asked questions by Turkish secularists. From an ideological perspective, the Turkish leftist and secular movements have seen Iran as a potential threat and an adversary, while Turkish Islamists saw the revolution as an inspiration.

The infamous coup d’etat that took place on February 28, 1997 occurred after an al-Quds event in which the Iranian ambassador made a speech and told people not to be afraid of being called fundamentalists in Konya. 

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, some Turkish intellectuals like Uğur Mumcu and Ahmet Taner Kışlalı were assassinated in bombings. The Iranian Quds Force was the main suspect, though even today who killed them is unknown.

On January 2, 2020, the United States targeted and killed an Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani as well as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of Iran’s Iraqi proxy organization, the PMF. In retaliation, Iran quickly launched a ballistic missile attack on two military bases in Iraq that were also used by the US troops. After the initial attack, one of Iran’s missiles also hit a Ukrainian passenger plane that had taken off from Tehran with 176 civilian passengers.

President Erdoğan called his Iranian counterpart Rouhani to express his condolences, but made sure he did not use the word “martyr” for Soleimani. 

This time, while many of the pro-government figures in Turkey were preaching about what sort of a villain Soleimani was, the Turkish secular left was busy describing him as the “Che Guevara of the Middle East.” Though it depends on how one perceives Che Guevara, the comparison was supposed to be a compliment to Soleimani’s legacy.

The main opposition party’s (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu commented on the downed plane a day after the incident. In a live broadcast, Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu said that “the claim that Iran downed the plane is psychological warfare.” 

Analysts close to the government were keen on emphasizing the incompetence of the Iranian regime, while most of the analysts sympathetic to the secular left were pointing to the “possibility of a conspiracy against Iran.” 

The period after the second Gulf War drew harder lines between different sects in Islam. The Arab Spring and the war in Syria further intensified tensions within the Islamist sphere. Turkish national interests collided with the Iranian interests in Syria, and both are driven by sectarian ambitions. For Turkish Islamists, Iran has not been the exemplary ideal of an Islamist state, but a deviant force.

Ever since the West extended its support to Turkish Islamists in the beginning of the 2000s, the Turkish secular left remained shocked by what they understood as Western “short-sightedness.” The use of the magical word “democracy” allowed the AKP to affirm itself with its international partners, but then over time transform and undermine most if not all of those democratic principles, and ultimately establish one-man rule in Turkey. This trauma has redefined the secular left in Turkey. The movements that build their discourse on Atatürk and his vision have been started to be more suspicious of the West. The idea that Turkey should be seeking allies in the region has been gaining traction among this part of the spectrum. 

According to Pew Research Center, Putin is the most popular leader in Turkey. As American imperialism is the common enemy of secular groups, growing Russian influence is not seen as a threat. And in the case of Iran, the hatred and suspicion towards the US seems to draw the Turkish secular left closer to the mullahs. The politics of the region never fails to surprise.