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Recently, President Erdogan has declared that the U.S. sanctions placed on Iran are against international law. He is not alone in expressing discontent against the sanctions, as European and other allies of the U.S. have leveled similar complaints. The concern is the possibility of unilateral action against Iran after the U.S. withdrawal from nuclear deal—which had been signed and committed to by Iran, Permanent Members of UN Security Council, and Germany. Erdogan stepped further and stated that Ankara will not abide by the sanctions. Turkey used to buy 50% of its oil and 20% of its natural gas from Iran. As justification, Erdogan points to the severe impact a cut in these purchases would have on industry and household energy consumption in Turkey. Could this dependency and Erdogan’s critical stance provide a lifeline to Iran vis-à-vis the U.S. sanctions?
Turkish-Iranian relations over the past decade can justifiably be characterized as complicated. The two nations have managed to control tensions and have succeeded at salvaging their relations despite a cyclical pattern of ups and downs. The two countries also proved capable of compartmentalizing their relations and pursuing economic relations despite these occasional political and security problems. Turkey’s total trade with Iran has reached almost 11 billion USD, of which 7.5. billion USD are imports. This number is projected to reach 30 billion USD in total trade. Previously, Turkey was able to obtain waivers and found ways to avoid the sanctions that had been reinstated against Iran. The issue now is whether Turkey will be able to avert the negative consequences of U.S. sanctions should they proceed with this trade relationship.
Over the course of the Arab Spring, Turkey and Iran chose different (and in the case of Syria, rival) sides. Turkey supported popular uprisings in the Arab countries and their subsequent transformations to majoritarian rule. Iran considered the uprisings as a challenge to its own domestic survival and attempted to raise firewalls against the possible intrusion of transformative waves to Iran. While Turkey’s involvement in Syria is about a possible Kurdish autonomous entity, Iran’s decisive engagement to back the Assad regime is meant to protect its connection to Shiite elements and influence from Iraq to Lebanon.
Despite vital differences, and the security consequences of those differences, Turkey and Iran, together with Russia, were still able to establish the Astana process for coordinating their efforts for a political solution in Syria. The logic was to utilize the roles of these three countries as complementary to other methods, such as the Geneva process, for addressing the civil war in Syria. Turkey and Iran both want to protect the territorial integrity of Syria and oppose any role of PKK affiliated groups in the country. Ankara and Tehran succeeded in striking a balance as they reached an understanding of each other’s security concerns. Tehran so far has not raised any objection to Turkey’s military presence in Idlib.
Russia has a bigger role in Syria than both Iran and Turkey in terms of military and political engagement and international diplomacy. Ankara and Tehran depend on Moscow’s position in their Syria dealings. In addition, Russia is an emerging ally of Turkey, and its long term preference of Iran in the case of its troubles with U.S. – Turkish/Russian relations reached a new high after Turkey bought its S-400 missile defense system despite U.S.’s threat to impose sanctions and/or expel Turkey from the F-35 stealth fighter jet program. Iran relies on Russia for purchasing weapon systems and generating international support against U.S. sanctions.
Turkey’s ongoing talks with the U.S. for a safe zone alongside the Turkey-Syria border is an irritant in both Moscow and Tehran. Ankara’s deepening military involvement in Syria would put Turkey at odds with all the parties if it cannot manage to walk this delicate policy’s tightrope. First, there needs to be a balance between the alignments with the U.S. and Russia/Iran in Syria. Second, it is almost certain that the duration of Turkey’s military presence in Syria is a serious concern for Iran, Russia and the Assad regime. Their position is to approve, or simply not oppose, Turkey’s short-term military intervention in northern Syria. In this sense, there is a delayed geopolitical rivalry between Turkey and Iran in Syria.
Turkish policymakers are aware of the seriousness of the issue of the Iranian sanctions. Turkey and Brazil brokered an inconclusive agreement between Iran and the U.S. in 2010. The Tehran agreement fell short of the demands of the U.S. administration at that time. It is likely that the U.S. never expected that Turkey and Brazil would succeed to persuade Iran to sign a deal. President Erdogan had an understanding of the Iranian nuclear issue’s importance to the U.S. administration and recognized the international dimensions of the problem. To him, it was a moral duty to support Iran against the unjust imposition of sanctions. However, the high level of international sensitivity is required to comply with the sanctions in order to avoid negative public opinion and other consequences for Turkey. Erdogan will keep an eye on the lean of any international consensus and attitudes toward the new U.S. sanctions.
Despite political rhetoric against the U.S. sanctions on Iran, Turkey complies with them when one looks at its Iranian oil trade. Iran’s share in Turkey’s oil imports decreased to 15 percent from 50 percent after the application of sanctions. Turkey’s biggest refinery, TUPRAS, is the main buyer of Iranian oil. Therefore, it is certain that TUPRAS would not want to face the U.S. sanctions. Turkey’s search for an alternative oil supply will increase Turkey’s energy dependency on Russia. There is already a high level of dependence on Iran for natural gas, coal and prospective nuclear energy. Ankara will attempt to secure waivers, or search for ways to circumvent the sanctions. The chance for bypassing the sanctions seems lesser than earlier examples. Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric seems like a message to a domestic audience for political purposes, rather than a decisive commitment to disregard sanctions.
Will Turkey be able to save Iran from the sanctions? This has never been the case and it is now not any more likely. Rather, Turkey will deal with challenges that if handled incorrectly may put Turkey into a problematic position during the post-Iran sanctions era. First, while Ankara follows a sensitive policy to secure access to Syria in agreement with Iran and Russia, it will abide with the sanctions to avoid a new crisis with the U.S. Second, Turkey may find itself pressurized in the midst of a destructive Saudi-Iran rivalry. Third, Turkey would face devastating impacts due the possibility of a destabilized Iran. For Iran, Turkey’s rhetorical support could help generate international counterarguments against the U.S. position. However, the main tenants of such a strategy would be Russia and China, on the one hand, and the EU, on the other, rather than Turkey. Ankara’s agenda will therefore be to minimize the negative spillover of the sanctions on Iran’s and Turkey’s domestic, regional and international relations. This prospect is far from saving Iran from the sanctions.
Dr. Bulen Aras is a Senior Fellow at Istanbul Policy Center and visiting professor of international relations at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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