The European Union’s lack of a truly independent negotiating position vis-a-vis the United States has been laid bear in respect of Europe’s attempts to resuscitate a JCPOA (aka Iran nuclear deal) that the US wants to implode before the eyes of the world. America has not been diplomatic let alone shy in its attempts to break Europe’s position in favour of a preserved (even if modified) JCPOA. Likewise, Iran is adamant that a deal that the UN has said was being complied with in all respects, should remain in force on an ‘as is’ basis among all willing parties.
As a literal bridge between western Iran and southern Europe, Turkey’s position as an ideal mediator in further discussions to save the JCPOA is invaluable. Politically, Turkey has been the most vocal country in the world when it comes to stating its misgivings about US attempts to isolate Iran through mega-sanctions. While China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the EU as a whole were parties to the original JCPOA along with the now withdrawn United States, it is Turkey that has been the most robust in its statements of support for Iran and a rules based trading order in which Iran could continue to conduct normal commerce with its partners.
Now that Turkey’s original sanctions wavier has been withdrawn (along with those previously granted to China, South Korea, Japan, India, Greece and Italy), it is Ankara that continues to speak in the strongest and least ambiguous tones in favour of maintaining the status quo of the JCPOA era. None of the other countries that had received waivers from Washington have come close to matching Turkey when it comes to making statements in defence of trade with Iran that crucially violates only US law but remains perfectly legal under international law. Now that the US plans to sanction countries which purchase other Iranian exports including steel, aluminium, copper and iron, the case for preserving a multilateral trading order is sharply focused on Iran’s trading partners.
Late last year, just as Turkey and the US appeared to be on course for a rapprochement after relations had consistently declined since 2016, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hosted a substantial delegation from Iran headed by President Hassan Rouhani. During the reception of his Iranian partners, Erdoğan even read a poem in Farsi much to the delight of his guests. But far from mere symbols of cultural exchange, Erdoğan stated adamantly that Turkey supports Iran and is completely opposed to American sanctions against the Islamic Republic.Since then, Turkish officials have continually been robust in their defence of Iran against sanctions pressure from a post-JCPOA United States.
There are clear reasons for this. First of all, Turkey and Iran have worked hard to further develop and increase healthy bilateral ties in spite of known disagreements regarding the Syrian conflict. Even in spite of these disagreements, Turkey and Iran continue to cooperate in the Astana format (Nursultan format to reflect the current name of the Kazakh city) along with Russia in order to further the Syrian peace process. Likewise, Turkey has confirmed that Iran has participated in a joint anti-terror operation on the borders of both countries aimed at curtailing the presence of the PKK and related terror groups. But moreover, Turkey and Iran seek to continue trading on a win-win basis. This of course includes Iranian energy exports to Turkey which are vital to the economies of both neighbours.
Beyond this, whilst Iran has been sanctioned in various forms by the US for decades, NATO member Turkey is being being threatened with major sanctions over Ankara’s refusal to drop its purchase of S-400 missile defence systems from Russia that will likely be delivered to Turkish soil this year. As a result, the US has already frozen Turkey out of the F-35 programme that Ankara otherwise plays a valuable part in.
While Turkey has other options when it comes to purchasing fifth-generation combat aircraft, America’s attitude to a country that has always been a reliable ally is not only seen as insulting in Ankara but a time when vicious western currency speculators have already put pressures on the lira, there is a real concern in Ankara that by cutting off a major supplier of energy from the Turkish market in the form of Iran, the US could effectively be sanctioning Turkey through the back door by forcing Ankara to choose between affordable energy supplies from Iran or even deeper economic standoffs with the United States.
In either case, Turkish officials might be privately wondering if the US isn’t so hellbent on exerting a unilateral approach to relations with Turkey that Washington might end up sanctioning Turkey to the same degree whether or not Ankara continues to purchase Iranian energy – something which is perfectly legal according to international law. Indeed, it must be emphasised that if Turkey continued buying Iranian energy, the only rules that it would be violating are those which the US seeks to enforce on countries that are uniquely beholden to America due to the dominance of the US dollar as the international reserve currency, the primacy of US financial institutions and the fact that the US remains a highly valued market for global exports. The US sanctions therefore have behind them the force of the US dollar and US markets, they do not carry with them the force of international law. Far from violating international law, the UN has condemned the US approach to Iran.
With all of this in mind, Turkey has even more of a reason to want as broad a possible coalition to bolster its pro-Tehran/anti-sanctions position as can be mustered. In the short term, preserving the JCPOA in some shape or form will be a major test of multilateralism. As such, because Turkey is in the unique situation of maintaining good relations with Iran and with the EU (in spite of Turkophobia being fashionable in much of mainstream European politics), Ankara is in a strong position to attempt and work out some sort of arrangement that preserves the key elements of the JCPOA that Iran considers red lines while working with Europe to bolster confidence in a post-US version of the JCPOA that both sides can eventually come to see as a Washington defying/multilateral supporting win-win.
As for China and Russia, it is also fair to say that Turkey has a close and important partnership with each of the Asian superpowers whilst Turkey’s trading arrangements with the EU make Brussels and Ankara indelible partners that neither genuinely would ever want to lose in spite of some rhetoric that occasionally indicates the contrary from both sides.
As such, there is little time to waste in respect of bringing Turkey into the discussions that the EU and indeed that China and Russia are having with Iran. Turkey not only is an interested party in respect of Iran trading with the outside world, but Turkish diplomats have the ability to balance both sides of the Iran-EU negotiating coin without offended the sensibilities nor crossing the red lines of either side. The sooner Turkey is brought into the equation – the better it shall be for all parties involved.