Since March 2003 U.S.-Turkish relations have been strained over Iraq. Now Washington has an additional cause for disquiet, as Turkish-Iranian economic relations go from strength to strength, further weakening Washington’s 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act.
Bilateral Turkish-Iranian trade exceeded $8 billion in 2007, up 19.5% over 2006. The increase is even more striking when measured against the same month one a year ago; the two countries’ trade in January 2008 showed a 32.35% rise compared with January 2007 and totaled more than $700 million. Trade is also largely lopsided in Turkey’s favor, as last year Turkey has exported over $6.6 billion worth of products to Iran, an increase of 17.5% over 2006, while Turkish imports from Iran were valued at $541 million (Press TV, March 2).
Washington is increasingly aware of expanding Turkish-Iranian energy ties. During an extensive interview last August, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns, when asked about Turkey signing an agreement with Iran to develop its natural gas industry and to provide gas for the planned Nabucco pipeline, avoided mentioning Turkey by name: “Well, our policy, the U.S. Government’s policy, is that countries should not be stimulating their companies to be involved in oil and gas investment in Iran…there are natural gas options and oil options for countries that are in Europe or the Middle East. Turkmenistan is one, Kazakhstan is a second. It’s not as if Iran is the only country in the world that produces natural gas. It’s not… I know there are efforts being made right now by the Senate and House to strengthen the Iran Sanctions Act, a fact that we’ve made clear to our European, Middle Eastern, and Asian allies…We need help on the sanctions issue, and particularly in oil and gas, and we would like to see that help come from our best friends in the next few months” (www.state.gov, August 20, 2007).
The simple reality is that energy-poor Turkey imports 90% of its energy needs and does not have the luxury of allowing “pipeline politics” to trump its national energy security policies.
The deepening bilateral trade ties are mirrored in closer political relations as well, as Tehran has strongly supported recent Turkish operations against the PKK in northern Iraq. Washington initially prevaricated on the issue and, once operations began, persistently urged restraint. In an apparent attempt to prevent PKK guerrillas from escaping the Turkish military offensive into northern Iraq and uniting with their anti-Iranian PJAK cohorts, Iran’s Foreign Ministry recently announced that the country had reinforced its borders (Gulf News, February 24).
Iran is well aware of the value of supporting Turkey on the issue. During his historic March 3 visit to Baghdad, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposed that Iran, Iraq, and Turkey form an alliance to fight the PKK and its affiliates, adding that that a stable Iraq would benefit all countries of the region and that anti-terror efforts should neither harm states’ sovereignty nor cause civilian casualties. Ahmadinejad told a press conference that, “terrorism is presently damaging everybody. Everybody should fight terrorism. We have to have coordination between the governments of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq” (Dunya Gazetesi, March 4). Washington certainly took note of the proceedings; the same day U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matt Bryza paid a surprise visit to Ankara to hold discussions at the Foreign Ministry, ostensibly on recent developments in Iraq (Dunya Gazetesi, March 4).
As annoyed as Washington might be by the growing Turkish-Iranian economic and political rapprochement, it is unlikely that it will unduly pressure Ankara by threatening punitive sanctions even if Turkey becomes technically liable, as Turkey is simply too important to U.S. Middle East policy to punish. Washington particularly values possible Turkish assistance in resolving the long-standing Arab-Israeli dispute, which for more than 60 years has set global and regional powers against one another. Turkey is unique in having a secular, democratic government led by moderate Muslims, and it has immense potential as a moderating force. Ankara’s ability to bridge seemingly intractable divides was evident during its recent campaign in northern Iraq, which was supported by Iran, Syria, and the United States. Its relationship with Israel, unique in the region, is valued in Jerusalem even as it talks to Hamas, and Turkey’s ability to communicate among such disparate groups can only increase its value in both the short and long term.
Turkish and Iranian businessmen will have an opportunity to explore further avenues of cooperation later this month when the Turkish Foreign Economic Relations Board holds the sixth joint meeting of the Turkish-Iranian Business Council. The meeting, under the leadership of Rifat Hisarciklioglu, chairman of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey, is scheduled for March 11 in Tehran and will be hosted by Mohammad Nahavandian, chairman of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, Industries, and Mines (Anadolu Ajansi, February 15). As unhappy as it might make the United States, energy is likely to be on the meeting’s agenda.