Turkey and Iran: An axis of the sanctioned?

U.S. sanctions have hit both Turkey and Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and renewed sanctions against Tehran resulted big falls in the Iranian currency and multinational corporations pulling out of projects in the Islamic Republic.

U.S. sanctions against two Turkish ministers and a doubling of tariffs on imports of Turkish steel and aluminium over Turkey’s detention of American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson also helped the Turkish lira to fall to record lows.

Turkey and Iran declared their solidarity with one other, leading some observers to look to the possibility of an “axis of the sanctioned” against the United States also drawing in countries such as Russia and China. But collaboration between Turkey and Iran based on reaction to the United States is likely to be limited to particular issues and over the short-term, rather than becoming a strong and long-term commitment.

Issues that Iran and Turkey may coalesce over are limited to symbolic shows of solidarity against U.S. sanctions and fighting against Kurdish ethnic separatism. One week after Trump’s Iran nuclear declaration, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the head of Turkey’s central bank hosted an Iranian delegation and announced the two countries had agreed their trade would be carried out in local currencies, rather than the U.S. dollar.

Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Dönmez also said Ankara would continue to buy Iranian natural gas saying it would be difficult to find alternatives to energy exports from Tehran. Iranian officials denounced Trump’s stance against Turkey and expressed their solidarity with their neighbour.

The two countries also reached an agreement over border security and intelligence sharing against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Iranian branch, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK). Just before the talks, 11 Iranian soldiers were killed by PJAK and some Iranian officials accused U.S. intelligence of aiding the Kurdish militants. Iranian authorities are increasingly sensitive to the Kurdish minority in Iran as public unrest over the poor economy grows and the Trump administration becomes more hostile. Turkey’s plans to carry out operations against the PKK in Qandil and Sinjar in Iraq need Iranian support to succeed so both countries have an interest in working together.

But outside pressure on Turkey and Iran does not change the reality of their centuries-old geopolitical rivalry in the region. Previous experience indicates rapprochement between them has its limits.

Previous periods of U.S. pressure on Iran also brought Ankara and Tehran closer together and the two countries have worked together against the PKK and PJAK. During Turkish operations against the PKK in Qandil, Iran was also shelled PJAK positions from its nearby territory.

But Iran has at times also opened its borders to the PKK and helped militants infiltrate into Turkish territory in return for ceasefire with PJAK, or for sake of using the issue as a bargaining chip against Ankara. Turkey has also supported Syrian rebels against the Iranian-backed Syrian government.

Nonetheless, Turkey did work hard at helping to solve the Iran nuclear dispute, proposing a fuel-swap agreement as a way to end the impasse. Turkey voted against sanctions on Iran at the UN Security Council, but Iran never gave Turkey credit or let it be part of the negotiations, despite Ankara’s efforts.

If there is a complete falling out between Turkey and the United States, Turkey could move closer to Iran. But a more realistic possibility is that the Turkish government would use its flirtation with Iran as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington. The United States would like to have Turkey’s support for its policy of tightening sanctions on Iran to work. If Turkey solves its issues with the United States, it would not make sense for it to become subject to more sanctions due to its trade with Iran. Turkey is thus likely to follow its deeper strategic interests.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.
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