The ‘Trump’ Card in Turkey-Iran relations

In spite of a rapidly evolving geopolitical situation and the existence of fundamental differences over many issues between Ankara and Tehran, trade and economic exchange have proven to be the trump card in the bilateral relations, irrespective of the Trump administration’s manoeuvres against this side or the other.

A complex relationship

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Middle East has gone through enormous geopolitical upheavals, including fluctuations in Turkish-Iranian relations.

Initially, Turkey’s authorities were apprehensive of the Iranian revolutionary zeal. For Iran’s part, the newly established revolutionary government effectively continued the Shah’s foreign policy of “benign neglect” towards Turkey as the new elites in Tehran had other pressing objectives, such as expanding Iranian influence in the Gulf region. However, during the period 1980-1983, Ankara provided a lifeline for Tehran, which was then isolated and crippled by sanctions.

A period of rivalry then followed at the end of the Cold War (in the early 1990s). Both states competed for influence in the post-soviet sphere in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The two sides, though, managed to navigate this rather turbulent period by managing their relationship via multilateral institutions and arrangements.

In the early 2000s, a significant change took place. The ascension of the AK Party to power led to a balancing of Turkey’s international relation. This policy shift is exemplified by increased engagement with other regions (e.g. the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa in addition to Europe), and the prioritization of economic imperatives at the top of the state’s foreign policy agenda.

President Erdoğan expressed his intention to pursue the “politics of merchants”, highlighting the rise of new middle class in Turkey, which adheres to the principles of liberal democracy and free enterprise. The ensuing policies echoed the liberal paradigm in political science, which considers the advancing of trade and commerce as necessary ingredients to limit the use of military force in international relations.

The 2003 War on Iraq and its aftermath

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was an earthquake for the entire Middle East and opened a Pandora’s Box, triggering several conflicts and consequently weakening several states throughout the region. Unlike Iran, whose proxies were victorious in Iraq, furthering Tehran’s influence in an arc stretching from Afghanistan to Lebanon, Turkey, on the other hand, was left facing considerable challenges.

Given the high reliance of U.S. troops on the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the emergence of reports that the U.S. supported organisations affiliated with the PKK terrorist organisation, Ankara was soon faced with the reality that the PKK was expanding its presence in Iraq. At that juncture, the Turkish military no longer trusted the Americans’ intentions to act as reliable allies and preserve Turkish interests as they had initially pledged.

The combination of threats emanating from the PKK and Al Qaeda in Iraq (which later morphed into Daesh/ISIS), and their subsequent spillover effects on the conflict in Syria, represented a clear danger to Turkish security. Thus, while Tehran was reaping the fruits of the rise of its proxies in Iraq, Ankara had to manage a volatile political and security environment and establish a long-term military presence in northern Iraq.

In the mid-2000s, Iran’s nuclear dispute with the West brought about new diplomatic complexities. On the one hand, because of geographical proximity, Turkey aimed to mitigate a potential doomsday scenario, while playing an even bigger role on the international diplomatic scene. On the other hand, Iran found in Turkey an interlocutor that could carry its demands to the international community and help achieve some concessions.

This short-lived moment of close collaboration was soon interrupted by the Arab Spring, particularly in Syria where Turkey and Iran found themselves supporting opposing camps in an increasingly virulent conflict. While Iran and Russia intervened on behalf of the Assad regime, Turkey gave its support to the opposition. Adhering to the Astana Process – which came relatively late in the game as the situation continued to become increasingly complex – became pivotal to keeping the lines of communication open between the different protagonists and prevent any uncontrollable escalation. By addressing the acute diplomatic, political and humanitarian crisis in Syria, Ankara showed that it is a force to be reckoned with on the international scene.

Meanwhile, despite the many bumps in the road that impacted their bilateral relations, Turkish diplomacy was skilful in compartmentalising the numerous issues with Iran, addressing divergences via diplomatic channels while still encouraging trade and commerce with Iran.

The recent US-Iran escalation

On May 1 2003, then President George W. Bush announced on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln that the war in Iraq was “Mission Accomplished”. 16 years later, almost to the day, US National Security Advisor John Bolton (a former member of the Bush administration) announced that the same carrier, namely the Abraham Lincoln Carrier strike group, was being deployed to “send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

Having felt the brunt of the U.S. policies in Iraq (since 2003) and Syria (since 2011), one can understand the combination of scepticism and resentment among the Turkish public and authorities about the most recent round of tensions between Washington and Tehran. From a principled point of view, Ankara opposes the sanctions against its neighbour, which was assured to be the most punitive in American history, with Bolton promising that Iran will be squeezed “until the pips squeak.”

Turkey had relied quite substantially on oil and gas deliveries from Iran, which became Turkey’s number one oil supplier in December 2016 with 26.74% of the total supply. Thus, it was no surprise that the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu voiced his criticism of the White House’s decision to end sanctions waivers for the purchase of Iranian energy. This decision was not only detrimental to the country’s economy (as buying from other sources increases the costs) but also undermined the foundations upon which the Turkish-Iranian relations are built.

However, despite voicing its principled disagreement with Washington’s decision, Iran’s share of Turkey’s oil imports shrank to 0% by May 2019, when the American sanctions entered into force. Turkey is facing several other volatile situations in its neighbourhood and non-compliance with the U.S. sanctions is not on the agenda.

Mixed views towards the U.S. escalation against Iran

Turkish experts and pundits hold mixed views about the recent U.S.-Iran tensions. For example, journalist Yahya Bostan dismissed the likelihood of military confrontation. For him, “What we are witnessing is an act of psychological warfare intended by both sides to push back against their opponent.” The aim of this rhetorical showdown, according to this viewpoint, is to get better terms in the negotiations.

Politician Yasin Aktay went further by dismissing the latest tensions as mere political manoeuvres, since the U.S. would not conceivably kill the goose that lays the golden egg, given that Tehran was used by Washington for a long time as the Gulf’s bogeyman to obtain juicy armament contracts from the Gulf countries. Moreover, there is a perception among some sectors of the Turkish public, relayed by Aktay, that Iran was the ultimate winner in all U.S. interventions, stretching its power from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and Yemen. So, why would the U.S. act differently this time?

Taking the former opinion to the extreme, columnist Ibrahim Karagul considers that while the U.S. recent moves appear set against Iran, the biggest trap is set against Saudi Arabia. He predicted that Riyadh would be the biggest loser in this situation.

At the other end of the spectrum, many consider Trump’s threats to Tehran to be serious. Academic Burhanettin Duran puts this episode in the broader context of US efforts to ensured Israel’s supremacy in the region and ending any potential menace to the Jewish state. According to Duran, “the anti-Iran bloc’s preference is to destroy the Iranian economy through sanctions, eliminate Tehran’s proxies in the region, and facilitate regime change.” He also related his fears that this tension could end badly for Tehran as “there are advocates of a tactical nuclear strike against Tehran in Washington and Tel Aviv”.

All in all, these differences in opinion reflect the fact that Trump’s administration seems to lack a clear paradigm and appears to behave randomly, privileging short-term tactical manoeuvres over long-term strategic gains. The White House has seemingly adopted a mediocre iteration of the madman theory, which has inflamed tensions, increased uncertainties, and undermined U.S. alliances around the world.

However, in spite of a rapidly evolving geopolitical situation and the existence of fundamental differences over many issues between Ankara and Tehran, trade and economic exchange have proven to be the trump card in the bilateral relations, irrespective of the Trump administration’s manoeuvres against this side or the other.


Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of the TRT World Research Centre.

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