International relations sometimes present zero-sum dynamics. In other words, it becomes impossible to have “win-win” situations.
In such cases, improvements in relations with one country come at the expense of another. This is why Turkey's much discussed “zero problems with neighbors” strategy has been difficult to maintain while trying to improve relations with Washington. Part of the problem has been the nature of the countries on Turkey's southern border. When your neighbors include Iran and Syria, the pursuit of zero problems creates problems on other fronts, namely in your relations with your NATO ally and main strategic partner. This is why good relations with Iran caused problems with Washington and now good relations with Washington are causing problems with Iran. As late as the summer of 2010, Turkey was one of Iran's main defenders in international circles. After the Tehran agreement in May 2010, Turkey went as far as voting against more sanctions targeting Iran at the United Nations Security Council. This was the high point of Turkish-Iranian relations and not surprisingly the lowest point in Turkish-American partnership. A lot has changed since.
After an unusually frank exchange between President Barack Obama and the Turkish prime minister at the margins of the G-20 Toronto Summit in June 2010, Ankara realized it had to make a choice between Iran and the United States. Otherwise, “zero problems” with Iran were going to cause “multiple problems” with Washington. Luckily, Iranian intransigence on the nuclear front made Turkey's task easier. Despite sticking its neck out for Iran, Ankara felt highly disappointed by the way Tehran conducted its diplomacy without rewarding Turkey for all its efforts. Making things worse was the way Iran continued to behave in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon by instigating and manipulating sectarian divisions as the Arab Spring was unfolding. Under such circumstances 2011 proved to be a very different year than 2010 in Turkish-Iranian relations. Ankara's relations quickly improved with Washington and rapidly deteriorated with Tehran thanks to two major developments: Syria and the NATO missile defense system.
On Syria, Iran sided with the status quo, while Turkey asked for incremental change and democratization. Tehran had always been suspicious of Turkish intentions in Syria, mainly on the grounds that Ankara aimed at breaking the strategic dependence of Damascus on Tehran. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asked the Syrian leader to loosen its grip on power, neither Bashar al-Assad nor Iran appreciated this Turkish meddling. After all, both Damascus and Tehran knew all too well what to do when regime survival was at stake. Things went from bad to worse after Turkey decided to host NATO radars on its border with Iran. While Washington was delighted, Iran was now determined to hurt Turkey by playing the “Kurdish card.” In the meantime, Turkey and Iran continued to be in opposite camps in Iraq and Lebanon where Tehran clearly supported Shiites while Ankara tried to provide a counter-balance against sectarian polarization. Seen from the West, Turkey was now the best model for moderate Islamic parties empowered by the Arab Spring and the most important regional ally of the West in containing Iran.
This is the background of deteriorating Turkish-Iranian relations during last year. Today, once again, there is increased American and European pressure for financial and energy sanctions against Iran. Under normal circumstances, one would expect Turkey to play along and support further sanctions. After all, for the Obama administration, these sanctions are the only alternative to a military option. Washington knows and fears that Israel prefers surgical air strikes targeting Iranian nuclear sites. The Obama administration is against this military option, partly because it would cause mayhem in the oil markets and jeopardize the weak American economic recovery in a crucial election year.
So the question is whether Turkey will this time support sanctions against Iran. The first signs are not promising. Turkey gets a third of its crude oil from Iran and Energy Minister Taner Yıldız recently pointed out that Ankara does not consider itself covered by new US and EU sanctions against Iranian oil. At a time when the Turkish currency is depreciating against the dollar -- making energy imports more expensive -- and the government is concerned about economic slowdown, Turkey is in no mood to seek costly alternatives to Iranian crude oil. We will soon discover whether strategic considerations with Washington or old fashioned mercantilism will dictate Turkey's Iran policy.