Implications for Turkey of the US withdrawal from Iran nuclear deal
During the tenure of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Turkey pursued a policy to ease the tensions between Iran and Western nations due to the nuclear issue. The country, which was considered a potential bridge builder between Iran and the West, took on the role of mediator, along with Brazil. Turkey engaged in intense diplomacy and managed to convince Tehran to sit around the table to reach a nuclear agreement.
In May 2010, Iran, Turkey and Brazil signed a deal, known as the Tehran Declaration, that included the transportation of 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) from Iran to Turkey. Iran also agreed to share the details of its nuclear program with the world, and hailed the establishment of a new world order as it allied itself with Turkey and Brazil.
The following month, Turkey voted against UN Security Council Resolution 1929, the latest round of international sanctions against Iran. Critical of such sanctions, Turkey called instead for a political solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. As a NATO ally, Turkey had not voted against the US position since 1952, and Ankara’s stance sparked criticism over its approach toward a nuclear deal at that time.
Turkey and Brazil proposed their agreement to the US. However, President Barack Obama’s administration rejected the deal, based on a distrust of Iran. So Obama rejected a nuclear agreement of which Turkey was one of the masterminds. However, he signed a different nuclear deal with the regime of Hassan Rouhani in Tehran in 2015, as a result of which sanctions on Iran were lifted.
US President Donald Trump announced on May 8 that the US is withdrawing from that landmark deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, and will reimpose sanctions on the country. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reacted by saying he fears new crises will erupt in the Middle East as a result.
“We don’t need new crises in the region,” Erdogan said, adding that Trump’s decision will not only affect the region but the entire world, stalling the international economy as well.
Following Trump’s announcement, the Turkish lira dropped below 4.37 against the dollar the next day. This showed that the US withdrawal from nuclear pact is likely to affect the lira, which has been under severe pressure for months, as well as trade with Iran amid increasing global geopolitical risks and problems in Turkey’s economy.
Turkey’s Minister of the Economy Nihat Zeybekci said that despite Washington’s decision, Turkey will maintain commercial ties with Iran and will not answer to anyone in this regard. In a similar vein, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Iran is a significant neighbor and trade partner of Turkey, despite some disputes over regional issues such as Syria and Iraq.
“First, we should see details of the new sanctions regime, because they affect not only the US but also Turkey, Turkish companies, European firms,” said Kalin. “On the other hand, we don’t want the Iranian people to suffer from this decision. We will not hesitate to discharge responsibility.”
A nuclear-armed Iran is not in the interest of Turkey as it would challenge Ankara’s own regional-power position in the Middle East.
Ankara, therefore, is determined about not taking any steps before knowing the details of the sanctions that will be imposed by Washington on Tehran.
Ankara and Tehran are trying to put their differences over regional politics aside and adopt a pragmatic policy based on mutual benefits, particularly with regard to Syria. This relationship was crystallized during the Astana peace process brokered by Turkey, Iran and Russia in early 2017 to seek a resolution to the Syrian conflict, at a time when ties between Ankara and Washington were strained due to a conflict of their interests in Syria.
Therefore, Syria is likely to become one of the battlefields of Iran-Western confrontation in the post-nuclear deal phase. With Iran engaged in the Syrian war through its Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah militias, the US decision aims to limit Iranian influence in the region. This policy will also hamper Iran’s position in the Astana process, in which the US is not a key player.
It seems Iran is facing a tough time in the region. It is clear that, for now, Turkey will not be taking sides in the crisis as it is already dealing with the effects of the turbulence affecting its other neighbors, Syria and Iraq. So a third neighbor under sanctions will not serve Turkish interests in the region. A nuclear-armed Iran is not in the interest of Turkey either as it would challenge Ankara’s own regional-power position in the Middle East.
However, a confrontation in the region triggered by the actions of the Trump administration is the last thing Turkey needs at the moment.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.