Trump could be outfoxed by Erdoğan on Iran, just like Obama

President Donald Trump could end up being the second U.S. leader to be outsmarted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when it comes to sanctions on Iran, former Turkish opposition politician Aykan Erdemir said in an analysis for Foreign Policy.

Erdoğan was in defiant mood last Tuesday, the day after the United States announced that Turkey was one of eight countries to win a temporary pass on the sanctions. Despite having pledged to slash oil purchases in order to win the exemptions, Erdoğan slammed the measures as “imperial” and vowed to defy them.

“The Trump administration should pay close attention to his words, lest it become the second U.S. government in quick succession to be outsmarted by Erdoğan,” said Erdemir, who co-wrote the analysis with Merve Tahiroğlu, a researcher for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

“Erdoğan made the same gestures of compliance the last time around, all the while double-dealing behind the scenes,” they said.

During the Obama administration, Turkey permitted individual sanctions-busters to launder money back to Iran from special U.S.-approved bank accounts in the form of gold or as payments for fake exports. That earned Tehran at least $13 billion in much-needed hard currency in 2012 and 2013 alone, Erdemir and Tahiroğlu said.

The illicit trade is still causing Erdoğan headaches. In January, a Manhattan court convicted Mehmet Hakan Atilla, former deputy CEO of Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, of complicity in the scheme. Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, a suspect turned state witness in Atilla’s trial, is under FBI protection in the United States and has hinted at Erdoğan’s direct involvement.  

A Turkish court’s conviction then release from detention of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson on terrorism charges early last month has raised speculation of a backroom deal between Trump and Erdoğan on Halkbank. A U.S. Treasury probe into the company's alleged role in the illegal trade continues.

Turkey imports half of its oil – about 200,000 barrels per day at full capacity – and a fifth of its gas from Iran. Ankara has pledged to reduce the purchases to 129,000 barrels per day. It remains to be seen whether Erdogan will stick to his word this time around, Erdemir and Tahiroğlu said.