U.S. should not confront Iran and Turkey simultaneously - scholar

The United States cannot afford to confront Turkey while imposing its soft power in the Middle East with sanctions on Iran, according to Muhammed Bahadır Gülle.

The Trump administration needs Turkey to help counterbalance Iran in the Middle East, and in Syria and Iraq in particular, said Gülle, a former diplomat and visiting scholar at the University of Cologne, Germany, in an analysis for the American Interest.

Escalating tensions with Turkey — the Middle East’s only NATO member — would undermine U.S. efforts to isolate Iran, Gülle said. 

Relations between Ankara and Washington have deteriorated in recent years as Turkey became more authoritarian and cozied up to Russia. Its agreement to buy S-400 air defence missiles has been met with stern opposition in Washington, including the threat of economic sanctions.

“If the United States cannot pacify its relations with Turkey and incentivise Turkish cooperation by eliminating the adverse effects of the Iran sanctions on the Turkish economy, then Ankara can work with Tehran to undermine the latter’s isolation,” Gülle said. 

In Syria, Turkey’s position may have been weakened by a recent Syrian-Russian offensive in Idlib, but it still holds significant influence in the country, he said. And it was Turkey that Trump turned to in recent efforts to defeat Islamic State, not Arab allies in the region, reflecting the value of the country as a military asset, Gülle said.

“Turkey’s rapprochement with Iran would create breathing space for the Iranian economy, increase the U.S. security burden in the region, and cripple the soft power of the United States and its allies,” he said.

Bilateral visits between Turkish and Iranian officials have increased in recent weeks, as Turkey seeks to help Tehran alleviate the worst repercussions of U.S. sanctions, according to Gülle.

“Only Turkey and Iran can balance each other in Iraq and Syria as regional powers and if they align it would be very hard to limit their combined influence,” he said.

“Removing Turkey from being a balancer and trying to isolate Iran is not a smart move.”