US Sanctions Bring Ankara and Tehran Closer
On August 8, a Turkish delegation met with US officials in Washington to address tension in bilateral affairs stemming from American pastor Andrew Brunson’s house arrest and upcoming trial in Turkey, which is both a cause and effect of mounting friction between Ankara and Washington. Since 2014, the Syrian crisis, Turkish-Russian relations, alleged American involvement in the failed coup of July 15, 2016, the non-extradition of Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, the US’ consideration of a fine against Halkbank for its alleged role in assisting Iran evade Washington’s sanctions, and most recently Ankara’s opposition to the US’ sanctions against Iran have all strained the strategic alliance. Yet the Donald Trump administration’s response to Turkey’s refusal to free Brunson, which made the US the first to impose sanctions on a fellow NATO member, and Ankara’s retaliatory sanctions have heightened tension in the relationship to an unprecedented level.
It is safe to bet that Iran will benefit from the crisis in Turkey-US relations with Ankara moving closer to Tehran. Iran’s chief diplomat, Javad Zarif, quickly condemned Washington’s sanctions on Turkey’s Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu. On August 2, the Iranian foreign minister took to Twitter to accuse the US of “pressure and extortion in lieu of statecraft” and having an “addiction to sanctions [which] knows no bounds.” Zarif’s tweet followed his meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Singapore. Tehran is repaying Ankara for its support in the form of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s stated opposition to the Trump administration’s decision to pull the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reimpose sanctions on Iran in May.
The US’ unilateral sanctions on Iran, implemented in two phases (earlier this month and later in November), bode poorly for Turkey’s economic health as Turkey benefited from the JCPOA’s lifting of restrictions on commercial trade between Turkey and Iran. The Trump administration’s sanctions will target the Iranian economy’s key sectors, including oil, finance, precious metals, and gold, threatening the heart of Turkish-Iranian trade. Given that Turkey has grown increasingly reliant on Iranian oil, with Iran surpassing Iraq in 2017 as Turkey’s top source of energy, abiding by Washington’s sanctions on Tehran would require Turkey to turn elsewhere for oil imports. The Turks would need to begin increasing energy imports from Iraq and Arab Persian Gulf monarchies, which will be more expensive due to transportation costs. As Turkey imports 92 percent of its oil, and virtually all its gas, a rise in global oil prices against the backdrop of rising demand for oil in Turkey could increase Turkey’s current account deficit, leading to more inflation and stifled economic growth. Thus, given Turkey’s interests in continuing to purchase Iranian oil and gas, officials in Ankara have declared that Turkey, along with China and Russia, will not abide by Washington’s new unilateral sanctions on Iran.
Of course, in addition to increased stress on the Turkish lira, a nightmare scenario would be American military strikes on Iran. Such a risk is greater given Washington’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA, which provided the US and Iran an opportunity to resolve the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program without firing a shot. Unquestionably, Ankara would strongly oppose Washington waging military operations against Iran’s nuclear facilities, largely due to the expected destabilizing impact on the region, especially Turkey and Iran’s other neighbors.
The Trump administration’s policies towards Turkey and Iran will certainly provide Ankara and Tehran more common ground in their opposition to Washington’s policies in the region. The Turkish and Iranian leaders view Trump’s agenda as contributing to growing regional polarization and insecurity. Washington’s sanctions on Turkey will add to a host of other US foreign policy decisions and developments in the Middle East, including Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the 2017 referendum in northern Iraq, and the 14-month-old Qatar crisis, which have recently given Turkey and Iran more common cause.
At this juncture, the Turkish-Iranian partnership is moving past the tensions in bilateral relations that resulted from the Syrian crisis’ eruption in 2011. To be sure, Ankara’s pivot to Iran, as well as Russia and China, began during Barack Obama’s presidency mostly because of Trump’s predecessor supporting Syria-based offshoots of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) and Washington’s perceived complicity in the coup plotters’ attempt to overthrow Turkey’s elected, civilian government in July 2016. Yet during Trump’s first 19 months in the Oval Office, Ankara has become increasingly determined to hedge its bets from the US and other NATO members, especially due to the current US administration’s stepped-up support for the PKK-affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and, most recently, the sanctions on two Turkish ministers.
As Turkey seeks to further diversify its alliances, Iran stands to play an increasingly key role in Ankara’s evolving foreign policy. Yet how much Turkey and Iran grow closer and look past their opposing interests in the region, particularly the fate of Syria’s “forgotten province” of Idlib where Tehran supports the Syrian regime forcefully reconquering the province, will largely depend on the next steps that Turkey and the US take to address the crisis plaguing their alliance. Although it is doubtful that the US sanctions will impact Turkey’s NATO membership, the potential for the crisis to spiral out of control against the backdrop of Western states’ anxiety over Turkey’s plans to purchase a Russian missile defense system calls into question Turkey’s long-term strategic orientation and Ankara’s position in the international geopolitical order.
With officials in Ankara finding the actions of their counterparts in Washington to be outrageous and unacceptable—and vice versa—the historic Turkey-US alliance is facing an unprecedented challenge. As İlnur Çevik put it, “Turkish-American friendship and solidarity are in serious jeopardy.” How Ankara and Washington can address their differences and calm their anger with each other is unclear and no easy solution appears on the horizon. Yet one thing is for sure. While the Trump administration seeks to deepen cooperation with Sunni powers that have cooperated to push back Iran’s expanding and consolidating influence in the Middle East’s post-Arab Spring landscape, the US Treasury’s sanctions on two Turkish ministers will weaken the White House’s capacity to achieve this goal. Looking ahead, a growing Turkey-Iran partnership, shaped by Ankara and Tehran’s shared opposition to the Trump administration’s foreign policy, appears to be a highly probable outcome of Washington’s sanctions on Turkish officials.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect IRAM’s editorial policy.
Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based consulting business.