Iranian leader heads to Turkey to talk Gaza war with Erdogan

Twice-delayed visit by Raisi comes as Iran state media broadcasts anger at Ankara over continuing trade and diplomatic relations with Jerusalem

This handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on January 5, 2024, shows Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi speaking in the southern city of Kerman. (Iranian Presidency / AFP)
This handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on January 5, 2024, shows Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi speaking in the southern city of Kerman. (Iranian Presidency / AFP)

ANKARA, Turkey — Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was expected to fly to Turkey on Wednesday for twice-delayed talks aimed at ironing out past differences and trying to halt the spread of the Israel-Hamas war.

Raisi’s visit to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan comes as fighting appears to be escalating across the Middle East. The United States and Britain have stepped up joint airstrikes against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen in response to their attacks on Red Sea shipping lanes.

Israel has allegedly repeatedly targeted Tehran-linked figures in Syria as cross-border attacks between the IDF and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon also continue to grow in intensity, with Israeli officials warning of the possibility of an all-out war.

Iran and Pakistan last week exchanged strikes against “militant” and “terrorist” targets and Turkey itself has stepped up attacks against Kurdish groups in Syria and Iran.

The rapid pace of the Middle East escalation forced Raisi to delay his visit to Ankara twice.

His planned talks in Ankara in early January were called off when twin blasts claimed by Islamic State group jihadists killed 89 people at the shrine of assassinated Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general Qasem Soleimani.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi shake hands at the conclusion of their joint press briefing at the Saadabad Palace, in Tehran, Iran, July 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

A trip he had planned for November was canceled because of conflicting schedules of diplomats involved in consultations over the Israel-Hamas war.

The turmoil engulfing the Middle East since Israel went to war in response to Hamas’s October 7 massacre has added a new layer of complexity to Turkey’s close but uneasy relationship with Iran.

Erdogan depicts Iran-backed Hamas as legitimately elected “liberators” and not the “terrorist” organization it has been proscribed as across the Western world.

He has compared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler for pursuing an offensive that has killed more than 25,000 people in Gaza, an unverified figure provided by the Hamas-run health ministry, which includes more than 9,000 Hamas operatives Israel says it has killed since the start of fighting.

But Erdogan — who was seeking closer ties with Israel just before the war began after years of bumpy ties, with a visit by Netanyahu delayed only due to his pacemaker surgery — had initially defended Israel’s right to respond to the Hamas onslaught in which terrorists murdered close to 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took another 253 people hostage, 132 of whom are believed to remain captive in the Strip.

Analysts have noted widespread anger in Iran’s official and semi-official media about Turkey’s continuing trade and diplomatic relations with Israel.

People shout slogans as they march in support of Palestinians during a protest calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, in Istanbul, Turkey, January 14, 2024. (Emrah Gurel/AP)

These differences add to existing tensions between the two regional powers in Syria — where they supported opposing camps in the country’s civil war — and in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Relations between Turkey and Iran have always been complex and multidimensional,” Istanbul’s Center for Iranian Studies director Hakki Uygur told AFP. “Turkey has always able to manage it, to somehow to find a middle ground. I think a similar thing will happen now.”

Iran’s official IRNA news agency said Raisi will be leading a “high-ranking political and economic delegation” on his first official visit to Turkey since his election in 2021.

Iran and Turkey share a 535-kilometer (330-mile) border and a long history of both close economic relations and diplomatic feuds. Turkey backed rebel efforts to topple Iranian- and Russian-backed President Bashar al-Assad during Syria’s civil war.

Iran grew increasingly anxious as Turkey supplied arms to help Azerbaijan beat back Armenian separatists from the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in 2020 and then again last year. Tehran fears that Baku’s resurgence in the Caucasus region could feed the separatist ambitions of Iran’s large ethnic Azerbaijani minority.

Analysts believe the Gaza war has helped put regional disputes on the back burner and force the two leaders to seek a joint approach to the Middle East.

“It is possible that Raisi and Erdogan might declare some symbolic measure about Palestine out of the meeting,” said Clemson University professor Arash Azizi. “But I think their focus will be mostly on how to contain the conflict and make sure it doesn’t expand further, something that Ankara and Tehran both want.”

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