Failing to persuade the UN Security Council to pass another round of sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, the US recently decided to take unilateral measures. The Obama administration introduced a new set of measures on New Year’s Eve, shutting out financial institutions from the US market if they do business with the Central Bank of Iran.
In mid-January, Japan, conforming to US-initiated sanctions, pledged to the US that it would buy less Iranian oil. A week later, the EU declared it would block all imports of Iranian oil starting on July 1.
Turkey for UN sanctions, but against unilateral sanctions
Meanwhile, Ankara has repeatedly declared that it only considers itself bound by UN sanctions on Iran, showing its opposition to unilateral sanctions. However, US Treasury officials visited Turkey several times in December to advise financial and economic institutions doing business with proscribed Iranian entities that they run the risk of being shut out of the US financial system. These talks between Turkey and the US may be seen as being parallel to US contacts with other countries, including those with the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and Japan, to cut back their trade and investment ties in Iran. Persuading its partners to follow suit with sanctions is important for the US to increase its efficiency in isolating Iran, and ultimately obliging the country to end its nuclear program.
US efforts to persuade Turkey to cut energy and other economic relations with Iran appear to be successful considering that Turkish firms doing business in the US are pulling away from Iran. For instance, Tüpraş, a Turkish refiner that imports Iranian oil and is owned by Turkey’s largest conglomerate, Koç Holding, has compiled with the US sanctions, exploring new alternatives to Iranian oil, the Financial Times reported last Sunday.
While private companies in Turkey want to comply with US and EU sanctions, as they have considerable business ties with the two, the Turkish government is maintaining its official position, at least in its discourse, in order to not cause its already strained relations with Iran to deteriorate even further.
The major areas of disagreement between Turkey and Iran rest on the future of Syria and Iraq, over which each has its own scenario. While Turkey wants major reforms in Syria or Assad’s resignation, Iran unconditionally supports the Assad government, which has long been its good ally. As for Iraq, Iran is content with the current situation of Shiite Iraqi groups monopolizing power in the country, while Turkey wants a democratic system based on the equal participation of all religious and ethnic groups.
Ongoing turmoil in Iraq and Syria poses many problems for Turkey on its southeastern border, including arms smuggling by groups of insurgents, an influx of refugees and increased activity by the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which hopes to take advantage of the turmoil. Turkey is aware that any solution seeking to end destabilization in Iraq and Syria that does not persuade Iran will not work, as Iran is highly influential among the Shiite and Alawite political blocs holding power in these two countries, respectively. Backing isolationist policies on Iran by supporting sanctions would end up enraging the country and endangering any possible solution to problems in the region.
Iran showed it could be dangerously aggressive when it threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which 20 percent of global oil supply passes. The US strongly criticized Iran over the threat, sending warships near the waterway because of Iran’s impulsive behavior, escalating the crisis in the Persian Gulf.
“Aggressive Iranian policies may be turned against Turkey if it follows the Western camp on imposing sanctions against Iran, establishing a danger zone around Turkey comprising Iran-affiliated Syria, Iraq and Armenia, and causing instability,” Mehmet Şahin, a lecturer in the department of international relations at Ankara’s Gazi University and a Middle East analyst at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), stated in an exclusive interview with Sunday’s Zaman, saying that Turkey should not follow Japan and the European countries’ lead in scaling back their economic ties with Iran because they are at a greater geographical distance from Iran and are therefore less affected should a crisis break out in this isolated country.
Dependence on Iran’s energy
Another reason Turkey must worry about its relations with Iran is its dependence on energy resources it imports from this country. Iran generally provides 30 percent of Turkey’s oil supply, while Iranian oil constitutes 10 percent of Japan’s total imports, and only 4 percent of that of France. Turkey’s dependence on oil from Iran increased to 51 percent in the first half of 2011, owing to strife in Libya that resulted in a halt to production. Iranian natural gas is also of crucial importance to Turkey, as it constitutes one-third of Turkey’s total natural gas imports, and because a significant portion is used to generate electricity.
Considering this high dependence and energy relations stemming from agreements with Iran dating back to the 1990s, Hasan Selim Özertem, a Eurasia expert at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), agreed with Şahin and told Sunday’s Zaman that Turkey cannot immediately cut back on its relations with Iran.
Energy dependency has proved its significance in politics in a number of cases. For example, in the Russia-Georgia conflict of August 2008, when Moscow crushed Georgian forces in a six-day war, Europe had to remain silent as it was a major customer of Russian oil.
Given various disagreements between Turkey and Iran, while claiming that it would be beneficial for Turkey to search for alternative energy suppliers, like the Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, as a result of the pressure that US-led sanctions create, Özertem said such a procurement policy is not very likely for Turkey in the near future. “For Gulf countries to replace Iran in energy supply to Turkey, conflicts in the Middle East must first be solved. Even a pipeline carrying gas from Qatar to Turkey has to go through Iraq,” he said, adding that a solution to the Iraqi problem should necessarily involve Iran.
On the other hand, Iran, increasingly isolated and facing new sanctions and security threats, has started to realize the importance of its partnership with Turkey. The US did not delay in responding to Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, with US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saying that “we have a military presence in that region [Hormuz] … to make very clear that we were going to do everything possible to help secure the peace in that part of the world,” on Jan. 18, while Israel warned Iran of a possible strike in late 2011 over its nuclear ambitions. Also, political analysts say the killing in broad daylight of an Iranian nuclear scientist who was involved in Iran’s nuclear program in Tehran shows the US and Israel are able to organize attacks in the country.
Russia and China showed their support by blocking a new round of UN sanctions, but their partnership with Iran does not seem unconditional. Russia, a global energy giant, sees Iran as a rival in energy matters and also competes with it in terms of exerting influence in the Middle East. Furthermore, China, during a visit to the Gulf countries in January for talks on energy relations, gave signals that it is ready to look for alternative energy partners in the Gulf instead of continuing to buy oil from Iran.
“These new developments have changed Turkish-Iranian relations to an interdependent relationship, preventing Iran from using the energy card against Turkey,” Serdar Erdurmaz, a lecturer in the department of international relations at Gaziantep’s Gazikent University and a Middle East analyst from the Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis (TÜRKSAM), said, referring to these facts. “Turkey remains the only gateway providing communication between Iran and Western powers, giving it a half-opened door for negotiations with these powers,” he asserted.