Turkey’s Iran pivot may strain ties with US

Turkish-American relations will boil down to where Turkey, the NATO ally in the region, stands vis-a-vis sanctions against Iran.
Sunday 04/11/2018
Cunning game. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a news conference in Istanbul, on October 30.                                          (AFP)
Cunning game. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a news conference in Istanbul, on October 30. (AFP)

After the Andrew Brunson affair, the Jamal Khashoggi killing and ahead of the US midterm elections, perhaps Turkish-American relations will boil down to where Turkey, the NATO ally in the region, stands vis-a-vis sanctions against Iran.

Some argue that the situation is not in Turkey’s favour. However, there may be reason to believe Ankara is engaged in a cunning game, playing both sides off against each other. Not only does it buy Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan time, it raises the stakes for the Trump administration.

Turkish Islamists and nationalists, who are anti-American, push fiercely for a break with the United States. Energy-dependent, crisis-hit Turkey gets approximately half its oil imports from Iran.

He is aware that going along with the US sanctions will affect him where it hurts — the power he has arrogated to himself. Therefore, Erdogan is keen to continue to delicately position himself between Russia and NATO.

Erdogan knows the importance of abiding by the sanctions, too. He stretched Turkish-American relations to the breaking point over the oil-for-gold federal court case in New York, which implicates members of his inner circle.

Even before the dust settles on the Khashoggi killing, Turkey has been outspoken in its denunciation of unilateral sanctions against Tehran. The message was delivered October 30 by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu standing alongside his Azerbaijani and Iranian counterparts.

The three foreign ministers stressed the determination to cooperate more strongly in the interests of stability. This came amid US uncertainty on the scope of sanctions. The ministers’ statement followed an apparently unsuccessful visit to Baku by John Bolton, US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser.

At another level, calls by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking Turkey “to side with us and not Iran” seems to have disappeared into a void. When asked if it was a moment to question Turkey’s future as a NATO member and US ally, Pompeo replied: “I hope not. It would be unfortunate for NATO. It’d be unfortunate for the United States and I think even more unfortunate for the people of Turkey if that were to become the case.”

In apparent disarray, Washington is acting ambiguously and sending mixed messages about the sanctions. In so doing, it risks losing ground. There was talk of countries — South Korea, India and, most likely, Turkey — declared exempt from penalties for trading with Iran.

If so, it will be interpreted by other countries as a pretext to raise concerns about the flawed decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran.

A key question in any case is whether Turkey is decisively pivoting towards Iran and Russia. It may well be so, argue Colin Clarke and Ariane Tabatabai in an article in Foreign Affairs. They point out that shifting alignments have gained intensity and the country that stands out as a loose cannon is Turkey.

Clarke and Tabatabai said there are several important reasons for Ankara’s move: ”Erdogan’s worldview shares many tenets with those of the Islamic Republic and Russia. Like Moscow and Tehran, Ankara is now more anti-Western than at any point in recent memory. In that sense, Turkey is pivoting away from NATO and towards the two revisionist powers.’’

They also point out the Syria factor. Erdogan, a chameleon-like pragmatist, realised that his regime-change policy in Syria had backfired and joined with Turkey’s hard-line, militarist, anti-Kurdish nationalists to take a new position. Actually, it’s an old Turkish position but right now it seems new.

Clarke and Tabatabai argue that “(Iran, Russia and) Turkey have an interest in preserving Syria’s territorial integrity, which could help them avoid a possible regional fragmentation and state failure that could spill over and threaten their own survival.”

There is another dimension, which would have implications for the Kurdish — and American — controlled areas of north Syria and forge a Turkish-Iranian axis.

As the article points out: “Iran is perhaps better positioned than the United States and NATO to help assuage Turkish concerns regarding the future of the Kurds… For both Iran and Turkey, the dismemberment of Syria and a Kurdish split from the country could lead to a slippery slope emboldening their Kurdish populations and creating a threat to their territorial integrity and national unity.”

All these aspects show that Turkey has lots of room to manoeuvre and what drives Erdogan is a new collective, Islamist-nationalist dynamic at home. This might prove a challenge that Trump and his people may find hard to overcome.

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