ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accused Iran on Thursday of trying to dominate the Middle East and said its efforts have begun annoying Ankara, as well as Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab countries.
Turkey earlier said it supports the Saudi-led military operation against Houthi rebels in Yemen and called on the militia group and its “foreign supporters” to abandon acts which threaten peace and security in the region.
“Iran is trying to dominate the region,” said Erdogan, who is due to visit Tehran in early April. “Could this be allowed? This has begun annoying us, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. This is really not tolerable and Iran has to see this,” he added in a press conference.
Warplanes from Saudi Arabia and Arab allies struck at Houthi forces in Yemen, who have taken over much of the country in their campaign to oust President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The Saudi-led intervention marked a major escalation of the Yemen crisis, in which Shi‘ite Muslim Iran supports the Shi‘ite Houthis, and Sunni Muslim monarchies in the Gulf back Hadi and his fellow Sunni loyalists in Yemen’s south.
Erdogan said the conflict has evolved into a sectarian one and urged Iran to withdraw. “Iran has to change its view. It has to withdraw any forces, whatever it has in Yemen, as well as Syria and Iraq and respect their territorial integrity.”
Erdogan’s plans to visit Iran had not changed, his spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, told journalists earlier on Thursday without giving a specific date.
In an interview with France 24, Erdogan also criticized Iran’s role in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq, saying Tehran was aiming to drive out the Sunni insurgents only to replace them.
“Iran’s attitude towards the matter is not sincere because they have a sectarian agenda. So they will want to fill the void that will be created by Daesh (Islamic State) themselves,” Erdogan said in comments dubbed to English.
Iraqi forces launched military campaign to retake the city of Tikrit three weeks ago, the largest offensive to be undertaken by the Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shi‘ite Muslim militias since Islamic State overran a third of the country last year.
The most prominent Iranian military officer seen on the battlefield during the Tikrit offensive is Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the al-Quds brigade of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
“This is someone I know very well,” Erdogan said, referring to Soleimani. “Yes, he is part of the operations in Iraq. So what is their objective? To increase the power of Shi‘ite in Iraq. That’s what they want,” he said.
Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Mark Trevelyan/Ruth Pitchford