The unequal brothers – Turkey, Iran and the nuclear dispute

For weeks, the Adrian Darya 1 has meandered through the Mediterranean. As part of its regime of sanctions against Iran, the USA tried to keep the Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar. The vessel has been looking for a port to unload its cargo of oil. One of the ports in consideration was the southern Turkish port of Mersin. Turkey, where the demand for energy is enormous, relies heavily on cheap imports of oil and gas. Its energy requirements have grown faster than any other OECD state since 2002, at 5.5% a year. Iran is one of its main sources, supplying 44.6% of Turkish crude oil imports and 17% of its natural gas imports in 2017. Turkey asserts that it does not feel bound by the new sanctions regime against Iran. In view of the US policy towards Iran, therefore, further tension with America is inevitable.

United in adversity

Turkey and Iran have traditionally had a strained relationship. On the one hand, this can be clearly seen in their rivalry for predominance in the region, but on the other, it is shot through with the need for neighbourly cooperation. Although this ambivalent relationship dates right back to the early days of the Ottoman-Safavid power struggles, the current political situation surrounding the atomic energy dispute has given it a new twist. The two countries, which face similar challenges, are currently looking almost fraternal. They both suffer the economic losses caused by the American sanctions, they are both in dispute with Saudi Arabia whilst at the same time trying to prevent the PKK from gaining traction in Syria. But the effects of these problems are very different in the two countries.

The Turkish economy, which is currently in recession, depends on supplies of raw materials from Russia, Iraq and Iran. With the Turkish lira in freefall, Turkish businesses now face the problem that oil and gas, which are traditionally traded in US dollars, have become much more expensive for Turkey. This has led to a massive increase in private corporate debt. The USA initially gave Turkey an exemption to allow it to continue to import Iranian oil, but Ankara’s attempts to secure an extension failed. Turkey has virtually no sources of oil and gas of its own.

In the regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey takes a critical view of the Iranian role – the latter’s enormous influence in Syria and Iraq is a huge thorn in Ankara’s side. However, this lies more in the fact that Iran’s hegemonic ambitions are a spoke in the wheel to Turkey’s own hopes of becoming a medium-sized power than because it is on Riyadh’s side. Quite the reverse: the conflict with the Kingdom has spiralled since the murder of journalist and intellectual Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The attempts of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to sideline Turkey within the region and punish it for its role as supporter to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood mean that Iran is very much the more straightforward partner for Ankara.

The problem with Syria 

The Turkish government, which the Russians have brought into permanent dialogue with Tehran through the Astana format, has in recent years consistently made gestures to ease the tension with Iran. This dialogue has at least on occasion fallen on fertile soil. Recently, for instance, the opening of a new railway line between Ankara and Teheran was announced. However, there has been little progress either towards increasing the volume of trade or on many issues of decisive importance to Ankara. The Turkish government has on many occasions announced that the crackdown on Kurdish PKK separatists will be more closely coordinated with Iran. Iran usually issues immediate denials of any joint military actions in the border region between the two countries against the Iranian wing of the PKK, the PJAK. In the Syrian conflict as well, in which Turkey has set itself the objective of containing Kurdish independence, Iran is somewhat reluctant to get on board with this. Certainly, neither country is enamoured of American plans to arm Kurdish YPG/J troops into a permanent buffer, which the US mainly sees as a means to limit Iranian hegemony. But by leaving the field open to Iranian militia or even the Assad regime instead of the Kurds in northern Syria, Ankara is going too far. However undesirable the Kurdish presence may be, there are at least some opportunities to influence the YPG/J via Washington, unlike Iran or the Syrian regime. And whilst at a pinch, the YPG/J could be dealt with militarily, it would be preferable not to become entangled in a conflict with Iran or the Syrian regime.

The US as a shared enemy

The withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA in May 2018 provoked extremely negative reactions. Against the backdrop of its own clash with Washington, Turkey saw this withdrawal as simply another attempt of the Americans to keep the Saudi vassals happy. When, soon afterwards, the US administration also hit Turkey with punitive customs duties, the Turkish leadership and pro-government press reacted with enthusiasm to the proposal of the German Foreign Minister to create a system to circumnavigate the American sanctions. In the Turkish view of things, this should apply not only to Iran, but would aim to stem US influence on economic policy worldwide, particularly that of the US dollar as a reserve currency. 

The background to these demands was not just the American tariffs on Turkish steel, but also concerns that the American Department of the Treasury might also slap sanctions on Turkey. In November 2017, the Turkish-Iranian gold trader, Reza Zarrab, faced trial in New York on suspicion of using dubious gold transactions via a Turkish state-owned bank to avoid the sanctions against Iran. Zarrab claimed that this took place with the approval and financial involvement of Turkish ministers and the then Prime Minister Erdoǧan. Much to the amazement of Turkish officials, these sanctions have not to this day been enforced.

Position of conflict not yet fully resolved

As far as Turkey is concerned, the escalation of tensions in the Gulf has had tangible disadvantages. In this respect, it appears clear where they stand – the political rhetoric has put the bulk of the blame onto the American government. Whilst Ankara continues to strive to be on good terms with its neighbours and avoid getting dragged into their disputes any more than it can help, there is some speculation as to the inherent benefits of the situation. 

For instance, it is fine by the Turkish government if American pressure has the effect of pushing back the Iranian-backed PMF militia in Iraq, as Ankara considers that they have sparked religious tension in its neighbour. There are also hopes that Turkish businesses can plug the gaps left behind in Iraq by weakened trade with Iran.

This means that increased pressure on Iraq would bring Turkey clear advantages on several fronts, whilst causing considerable disadvantages elsewhere. The thought of a destabilised Iran is horrifying to Turkey, not just because of the likely flows of migrants into Turkey, but also because of the wider-reaching consequences for the regional balance of power. Without Turkey, however, Washington will find it difficult to contain Iran.

The direction that Ankara will ultimately choose depends much more on how its stricken relationship with the USA develops overall. This presupposes that the Trump government is not interested in an out-and-out military clash with Iran and continues to adhere to its policy of pinpricks, such as seizing the Adrian Darya 1. The tanker is apparently still looking for a port, but has switched off its transponder – so we may never know where it ultimately moors. Its current location is unknown.