America’s Economic War on Turkey Has Killed Off The Possibility of Direct Talks With Iran

Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that he is willing and in fact happy to engage in direct talks with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani about a would-be JCPOA 2.0 – a revision of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated at the time by Barack Obama with his counterparts from Iran, China, Russia, the European Union, Germany, France and Britain. While members of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were predictably hostile to such overtures from Washington, President Rouhani himself said little to indicate a definitive ‘yes or no’ position on entering talks with Donald Trump.

Today though, Rouhani’s superior, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made Iran’s position clear in stating that he has expressly vetoed any possibility of direct talks between Iranian and US officials over a JCPOA 2.0. While Iranian officials have often criticised America’s negotiating techniques or lack thereof, the timing of Iran’s Supreme Leader’s intervention is highly significant as it comes days after the US doubled tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium imports as well as having a close proximity in time to Washington’s sanctioning of the Turkish Justice and Interior Ministers.


Furthermore, in light of Turkish officials restating multiple firm commitments to continue its business and security relations with Iran irrespective of the future threat of US second party CAATSA sanctions, Iranian officials have rushed to Turkey’s defence in the aftermath of the new sanctions and tariffs.

Beyond drawing Turkey and Iran closer than they were already rapidly growing, the imposition of punitive tariffs and sanctions on Turkey has led to two clear developments among Iranian policy markers. First of all, Iran seeks to seize a common moment where both its own economy and that of neighbouring Turkey are coming under similar pressures from the same source in order to foment a wider united front of nations throughout Asia who have vowed to ignore US threats of second party sanctions against Iran. Most notably, this group is comprised of states as diverse as China, Turkey, Russia and Japan, with India and the European Union indicating that they too plan to take a similar course of action.

While President Rouhani is known for his moderate foreign policy positions, the country’s more conservative Supreme Leader has now taken the opportunity to reject talks with the US in favour of attempting to broaden the membership and strengthen the resolve of the wider anti-sanctions community. As Turkey and Iran are the two leading non-Arab powers of the wider Middle East, a neighbourly alliance against sanctions may well have been the primary motivation behind Khamenei’s latest proclamation.

Furthermore, in treating a long time NATO partner with the same open hostility with which Washington customarily reserved for opponents like Iran, Syria, Russia or the DPRK (prior to the current peace process), Iran’s Supreme Leader and his closest advisers were likely doubly motivated in reinforcing the longheld Iranian believe that negotiations with the US are futile.

With the asymmetrical but nevertheless undeniable progress of the Korean peace process indicates that perhaps Trump was motivated  more by his hatred of his predecessor Barack Obama in withdrawing from the JCPOA than he was by an overlying opposition to Iran’s regional policies, the optics of Washington’s hostile moves against Turkey clearly emboldened the more anti-American factions in Iran to make a stand over those who likely argued for some sort of dialogue with the US at a private level. Because of this, even if Trump’s intentions regarding talks with Rouhani were genuine and sought to follow the DPRK model, the barrage of anti-Turkish measures taken by Washington was enough to shift the balance in Tehran in favour of a ‘no dialogue’ approach to dealing with the White House, at least for the time being and foreseeable short term future.

A further unintended consequence of Washington’s moves against Ankara is that an issue in the context of the Syrian conflict that had the potential to re-open old disagreements between Iran and Turkey has now been sidelined. It remains to be seen whether Syrian forces will commence a full scale anti-terror operation in the Governorate of Idlib, but whereas in the recent past, Iran had a tendency to champion an absolutist position of Damascus to liberate “every inch” of Syrian territory, Iran’s newly strengthened anti-sanctions/anti-tariff alliance with Turkey means that Iran may now accept the position largely shared by both Turkey and Russia that a full scale operation by Damascus against Idlib militants is out of the question and that limited strikes that avoid hitting pro-Ankara factions in Idlib combined with a commitment to the Astana peace process is the only viable way to move forward.

In this sense, the US has seemingly scored two own goals. First of all, in acting in such a brazen manner against its Turkish ally, it has lent credibility to hardliner factions in Iran who are essentially saying “if the US won’t negotiate with a decades long ally, what makes you think they’ll negotiate in good faith with Iran?”. Secondly, in effectively making Iran prioritise its economic/anti-sanctions partnership with Turkey over defying Russia and Turkey over an absolutist stance on Idlib, the US has now minimised discord within the Astana group of Russia, Turkey and Iran at precisely the moment that it may have been possible to explicit a would-be rift in the Astana group.

Taken in totality, the US has helped Turkey and Iran to put aside their differences over Syria while helping both nations to realise the urgency of putting together a wider global anti-sanctions coalition which in theory could stretch from western Europe to China. Once again, the law of unintended consequences has struck in respect of the American approach to Turkey –that is of course unless Trump privately intended this as part of his wider plan to force the US to become more self-sufficient and less involved in the wider global free trade consensus. 

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