Turkey’s view of the U.S.-Iran crisis

“If Iran wants to fight that will be the official end of Iran,” U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted this past Sunday. “Never threaten the United States again!”

One must wonder what Ankara makes of Trump’s Twitter antics these days. Because, let’s face it, Turkey’s leaders are no strangers to grandstanding and chest-thumping.

For weeks, officials in Ankara have been making defiant statements about the U.S. campaign to ramp up pressure on Tehran. As the U.S.-imposed May 1 deadline to end imports of Iranian oil drew near, for instance, Turkey’s foreign minister announced that a new arrangement to bypass the restrictions was in the pipeline (pun intended).

Yet several weeks down the road, Turkey appears to be complying with the sanctions.

No Iranian tankers have delivered crude to Turkish ports this month, according to a Reuters story published on Tuesday. The piece notes that an Iranian tanker carrying 130,000 tons had to make a detour and offload in the Syrian port of Banias. It also quotes an unnamed source from within Tüpraş, Turkey’s national oil company, saying efforts to lobby the U.S. administration had borne no fruit.

What is happening, in all likelihood, is that Erdoğan has decided to pick his battles. He has had more than his fair share of those when it comes to Washington. The standoff over Ankara’s planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system takes a lot of bandwidth. And then there is the unresolved issue of the Turkish demand to set up a security zone in northeast Syria. Meanwhile, Turkey has multiple sources of oil available, including Iraq, traditionally its top supplier, Russia and Kazakhstan. Losing Iran is not the end of the world.

Turkey’s choice to side with the United States highlights the complex nature of its relations with Iran, a subject worthy of an epic TV serial. From a rival in Syria, Iran has turned into a partner of sorts. In late April, deputy foreign minister Sedat Önal took part in the 12th round of the Astana peace talks along with Iranian envoy Ali Asghar Khaji and Russian diplomat Alexander Lavrentiev.

But cracks in the partnership are beginning to appear. The meeting in the Kazakh capital brought no progress on key issues, such as with a composition committee. Soon after, Bashar al-Assad’s forces launched a major offensive against the rebel enclave around Idlib, exposing Turkish military observations to airstrikes. Erdoğan had to call Putin on May 14 to express his concern and urge Russia to intervene. Five days later, the Russian Defense Ministry’s loftily named Center for the Reconciliation of the Warring Parties in Syria declared a unilateral ceasefire.

The Iranians are firmly behind Assad’s push to recover control of Idlib and destroy al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the jihadi militia which has emerged as the dominant faction in the area. As ever, Turkey has only Russia to rely on in order to stop the onslaught and prevent the influx of a new wave of refugees.

But if Turkey has no love lost for Iran, it is not particularly fond of its main regional rival Saudi Arabia either. The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last October took a heavy toll on the relationship. Erdoğan’s attempts to leverage the murder to undercut Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the strongman in Riyadh, has left a deep scar. The only bright spot is that Saudi investors, despite warnings from the Kingdom, are not yet pulling out of Turkey. In reality, Turkey has no bone in the feud between the Saudis and Iranians; both are its competitors, and if they cancel one another out, so be it.

Trump’s unpredictability poses the far greater challenge. There is nothing wrong, from the Turkish perspective, with Washington trying to clip Iran’s wings. For years, Erdoğan has waited for America to weigh in strongly in Syria and tip the scales against Assad and his patrons in Tehran. This still isn’t happening. But turning the screws on Iran should be seen from Ankara as a positive development. For starters, it could remake the regional balance of power in Ankara’s favour. It could also enable Ankara to serve as the go-between for Tehran and the West.

The trouble is that Trump doesn’t know when to stop, and his sabre-rattling could push the situation over the brink. By sending an aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf, the United States has ratcheted up tensions.

A full-blown war with Iran, though still unlikely, would have vast, unpredictable consequences. Its repercussions would be felt across the region, with possibly destabilising knock-on effects in Syria and Iraq, and potentially Turkey. Not a prospect for Ankara to cheer, surely.

 

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