ISTANBUL - Turkey has pushed back hard against U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned of serious consequences, with analysts saying Turkey could find itself drawn into a dispute between Washington and Tehran.
Erdogan spoke by telephone with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, Wednesday. Local media, citing a Turkish presidential source, said Erdogan reaffirmed his support of the nuclear deal and criticized Trump’s decision.
“We don’t need new crises in the region,” Erdogan said in an interview with international broadcaster CNN, warning the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal could have not only regional, but global repercussions.
“States must stand by the treaties they have signed. If they don’t, all international treaties of the past could be suddenly ignored one day,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara.
“Turkey does not want to be pulled into a U.S.-led effort; that would pit Turkey against Iran,” said analyst Sinan Ulgen of Carnegie Europe. Although they are regional rivals and back opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, Ankara and Tehran are cooperating in efforts to end the conflict. Such efforts, Ulgen warns, could be jeopardized by escalating U.S.-Iranian tensions.
“It would have an impact as regards to Syria, where Iran is an important player and Iran’s contribution is needed if some sense of normalcy is to be returned to Syria. So for many of these reasons, Turkey does not want Iran to be pushed into a corner into a much more confrontational environment. And that is generally seen as being a very unwanted and destabilizing dynamic,” Ulgen said.
Turkey is hosting around 3 million Syrian refugees and wants an end to the conflict to allow their return. Significant numbers of Turkish armed forces are also deployed in Syria against a Syrian-Kurdish militia that Ankara deems as terrorists.
Ankara is also alarmed at the potential economic fallout of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Trump’s announcement, that the U.S. will impose the "highest level" of sanctions on Iran, sent a chill through Turkey’s troubled financial markets, causing the Turkish lira to fall sharply on the news. The currency has already hit record lows this year because of growing international investor concerns over forthcoming June elections and an overheating economy.
Erdogan reportedly reaffirmed his country’s economic commitment to Tehran in his conversation Wednesday with Rouhani. Iran is a strategic trading partner for Turkey, supplying gas and oil. The two neighbors have committed themselves to expanding trade to $35 billion. Bilateral trade was around $10 billion in 2016, the last available figures.
Renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran could put Ankara on a collision course with Washington.
“We’ve seen this in the past. Turkey will not comply with U.S. sanctions,” political columnist Semih Idiz of al-Monitor website said. “It (Turkey) will not stop importing Iranian gas and oil, maybe the Turkish banks will be more careful because of what happened to Halkbank but that's about it. U.S.-Turkish relations are not at a really good position anyway,” Idiz added.
Earlier this year, a New York court convicted Hakan Atilla, a senior executive with Turkish state-owned Halkbank, on violations of U.S. Iranian sanctions. Next week, Atilla is due to be sentenced, while the bank faces potential heavy fines.
Ankara has strongly condemned the prosecution, maintaining Turkey is not bound by unilateral U.S. sanctions. The case is one of a myriad of issues straining ties between the two NATO allies.
Trump threatening the “toughest sanctions,” the U.S. has ever imposed on Iran raises the prospect of a further escalation in bilateral tensions - a danger analysts say Ankara will be seeking to avoid.
“There are certainly people in Washington that understand Turkey’s position,” analyst Ulgen said. “That was also the case before ...in the (President Barack) Obama years, when he decided to impose unilateral sanctions against Iran. Turkey was granted a number of exceptions; that could be the case going forward as well,” Ulgen added.
Next week in Washington, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu is expected to press his nation's case on sanctions when he meets with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Both sides will muddle through given Turkey’s strategic importance in the region,” columnist Idiz predicted.
But analyst Ulgen is more cautious, warning that Cavusoglu could have a hard time convincing Washington.
“Now with not only the U.S. president but also his close collaborators starting with the new secretary of state, Pompeo, and National Security Adviser John Bolton, these men have a very heavy anti-Iran agenda. So it remains (to be seen) whether Turkey could diplomatically convince these people of its own priorities, given its geography, given its history with Iran.”