Between Washington and Tehran: Turkey Engages the Iranian Revolution, 1978-1982

Relations between Turkey and the United States had been estranged from 1974-1978, due to the arms embargo imposed by Congress as a result of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. No sooner had US-Turkish relations begun to improve than Iran drifted into the early stages of revolution. Ankara quickly sensed that the troubles of its eastern neighbor might benefit the republic, that the disappearance of the shah’s regime, a staunch ally of the US, could leave Washington seeking a new line of defense in the region. This could bring substantial American assistance at a time when the Turkish economy was weak and ailing. Iran’s loss could be Turkey’s gain. Yet, as a result of the embargo period, Ankara had become more determined than ever to pursue its own interests in foreign policy. Although it would accept American largesse, it would not follow meekly wherever Washington led. This newly asserted independence soon led to confrontation. After the seizure of US diplomats as hostages in Tehran, Washington insisted that its allies impose strong sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The Turkish government determined it would be unwise to antagonize the new regime in Tehran, some of whose leaders already considered it a tool of US imperialism. The government refused the American demand despite intense pressure. Using recently declassified records from the Carter and Reagan administrations and secondary materials in Persian and Turkish, this paper examines how the Turkish government effectively negotiated between the conflicting expectations of a potentially hostile revolutionary regime in Tehran and those of its long-time NATO ally. By 1982 Ankara had worked with both Tehran and Washington to create a new status quo in the region, which would have seemed impossible a short time earlier.