Turkey’s Iran conundrum

The fact that relations between Turkey and the United States are in a horribly bad shape does not mean that they cannot get worse. The case in point is the looming dispute over Iran. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced this week that Washington was ending the 180-day waivers allowing eight countries to import oil from Iran despite sanctions.

From May 2, anyone buying crude from the Islamic Republic risks coming under U.S. sanctions. Turkey is one of the affected countries, along with China, India, Japan and South Korea. Iran is a key supplier of crude oil to the Turkish economy. In 2017, it was Turkey’s biggest supplier with 11.5 million tonnes out of a total of 25.8 million tonnes. In addition, Iran accounts for 20 percent of natural gas imports to Turkey.

The U.S. move ramps up pressure on Tehran, but is bad news for the Turkish leadership. As recently as last week, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalın insisted Ankara expected an extension of the waiver. Now it looks as if the United States has brushed aside Turkey’s requests.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu lashed: "Why are you putting pressure on other countries? Take your own measures. Why do other countries have to obey your unilateral decisions?"  

Turkey has also resisted U.S. suggestions that it could turn to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to make up for the loss of Iranian imports. Given the strain in Turkey’s relations with the Saudis in the wake of the murder in October last year of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, the U.S. proposal from Turkey’s point of view adds insult to the injury.

Çavuşoğlu noted that Iranian oil was not cheap, but said Gulf countries charged a premium. “Why should we pay the price?” he asked in an interview with state broadcaster TRT.

There is a case to be made that if Turkey were to cut back on oil imports from Iran, it would have dramatic consequences. Iranian oil supplies have in any case been declining. In June to November 2018, before the U.S. announced sanctions, imports shrank by more than a half, from 6,500 to 2,999 million tonnes. Iraq and Russia picked up the slack. Even if supplies from Iran have picked up in the past months, after Turkey obtained the 180-day waiver, Iran has lost its former lead and is now Turkey’s number three supplier, with Iraq topping the list.  

In other words, Turkey has a variety of options. A much more serious concern for Ankara are rising oil prices, driven up by political uncertainty. Coupled with the depreciating lira, they mean an extra burden on Turkey’s already struggling economy.

What is at stake for Turkey is, in the final analysis, geopolitics. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cannot afford to side with the Trump administration against Iran. The Islamic Republic along with Russia has turned from an adversary to a key partner in managing Syria.  The Astana Process is Turkey’s best bet to assert its influence in the war-ravaged country and contain the Syrian Kurds. In addition, Iran joined forces with Turkey in pushing back against the Kurdistan Regional Government after the independence referendum held in October 2017.  

While the United States has emerged as a principal ally of the Kurds in the region and Russia prefers to sit on the fence, Turkey and Iran are united in their support of the status quo.  Going further back, Ankara has consistently opted for engaging rather than containing Iran. One is reminded of the 2010 failed attempt by Turkey and Brazil to mediate in the Iranian nuclear issue or indeed the sanctions-busting scheme involving businessman Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab and Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank. Turkey and Iran no doubt remain rivals, but there is rich nuance to their relationship.  

The wild card in this equation is the United States. We might be moving closer to a train wreck in relations with Turkey because of the dispute over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defence missiles. As much as Erdoğan believes he can fix matters through a personal deal with Donald Trump, there are few encouraging signs that a compromise is within reach. In case Turkey digs its heels over Iran and escalates its rhetoric, Congress as well as hawks within the U.S. administration will have additional arguments as to why a pivotal NATO ally should come under U.S. sanctions.  

The narrative of Erdoğan as balancing between the United States and adversaries such as Russia and Iran, but nonetheless loath to sever ties to the West will take a hit. On its own, Ankara’s dealings with Tehran are unlikely to upend U.S.-Turkish relations. But siding with both Russia and Iran against the United States could well bring tensions to a whole new level.

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