Apart from sharing a border and centuries of history, Turkey and Iran share many of the same strategic goals in the region and beyond. Both countries are in the midst of rapidly expanding trading relations with both China and Russia and as such both are enthusiastic participants in the Belt and Road initiative. Furthermore, with China entering into a free trading agree with the de-facto Russian lead Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) in 2019 and with Iran having signed a provisional three year free trading agreement with the EAEU in May of this year, there is already a great deal of mutual trading connectivity between Turkey and Iran at hand. Furthermore, as China has notably endorsed Turkey’s desire to join the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) at the soonest possible date, the Brazilian presidential election which is expected to be won by the pro-American Jair Bolsonaro may well tilt Brazil away from the BRICS which could inadvertently make room for Turkish membership. Finally, as Turkey remains an important security and energy partner to Iran, there is all the more impetus for the Turko-Iranian partnership to strengthen in spite of the US threat of sanctions against any nation which continues to transact with Tehran.
Furthermore, Turkey along with China, Russia and the European Union has vowed to maintain trading ties with Tehran even after the 4th of November when the full weight of US sanctions come into force against not only Iran but against nations that continue to trade with Iran without receiving a special waiver from Washington. Today, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made his position clear when he stated,
“You (America) can take a decision, but why do you want to punish other companies and countries? It is not a decision of the UN Security Council”.
Cavusoglu further criticised America’s “unilateral” stance on sanctions and demanded that Turkey receive a waiver in respect of trading with its eastern neighbour without having to contend with the threat of so-called secondary sanctions from the US.
The timing of these statements is crucial as Turkey is seeking to leverage the US in respect of secondary sanctions at a time when both Turkish media and European officials have criticised Washington for failing to condemn Riyadh for its apparent role in the murder of Saudi born journalist Jamal Khashoggi. For Turkey and especially for the EU, the matter is now one of gaining joint leverage in order to bolster the mutual desire of both Ankara and Brussels to continue normal economic relations with Iran after American sanctions are implemented.
As Saudi Arabia now stands accused of doing the kind of thing that the US tends to falsely accuse Iran of doing on a regular basis, both Turkey and the EU are hoping that the US will back down in respect of threatening Iran’s partners with sanctions in light of the fact that top-US ally Saudi Arabia’s public image has taken a severe beating with no apparent end in sight. Furthermore, as the US is in the midst of an election season, the EU in particular could threaten to stimulate the anti-Trump and hypocritically anti-Saudi campaign of the American opposition by offering an anti-Trump/anti-Saudi united front in order to extract concessions from Donald Trump.
This comes as Iran decided to break its silence on the Khashoggi murder as President Hasssan Rouhani stated that the journalist was killed by the Saudi state with help from American actors. For Iran, the statement is a clear attempt to show solidarity with its increasingly important Turkish partner while also serving as an attempt to resurrect its visibility in the Syria conflict at a time when Russia, Turkey, France and Germany are about to gather in Istanbul for a conference on Syria in which Iran will noticeably be absent in spite of its membership of the Astana Trio along with Russia and Turkey.
Taken in totality, one of effects of the Khashoggi murder has been to increasingly isolate the US position on Iran among major international players. That being said, Israel is likely to come to Riyadh’s defence behind the scenes. It is quite probably that Israel is already working quietly to bolster Saudi Arabia’s security apparatus after the murder of Khashoggi was so self-evidently amateurish or as Donald Trump called it “the worst cover-up in history”.
In a further indication that the trifecta of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States looks to weather the current geopolitical storm, Donald Trump recently praised Saudi Arabia’s support for Israel while criticising Iran in the same statement. This makes it clear that for the time being, Trump is likely to hold firm to his position of going “soft” on Riyadh for the sake of preserving the status quo of Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Wasington all lining up against Tehran and increasingly also against Ankara.
Because of this, it is anything but certain that Trump will compromise on his stated desire to sanction states that continue to trade with Iran after the 4th of November. That being said, the Turko-Iranian partnership now forms the core of nations standing up to the threat of sanctions. Crucially this partnership is bookended by the Chinese and Russian superpowers to the east and the EU economic power to the west.