Can the US rely on Turkey to keep Iran in check?
The name Reza Zarrab probably does not ring a bell with most people. But he was at the center of a money laundering and sanctions-evading scheme set up by the Iranian regime with the alleged help of Turkey. He became a key witness for the US prosecutor and is perhaps the reason why sanctions hurt Iran so deeply during the Trump administration.
Zarrab’s case is symbolic of Turkey and Iran’s pragmatic approach to geopolitical issues and their vision of the Arab region. Beyond such illegal business activities, theirs is also a political deal, whereby influence and territories are divided in a transactional way. The fact that the architect or vehicle for this $20 billion arrangement was a small exchange shop — and a relatively low-profile business figure — is quite interesting and worthy of a movie. It is also very insightful as to how the networks of power, intelligence and finance function in the Middle East, especially backstage.
Turkey and Iran have been cooperating directly and indirectly on various fronts for the past decade at the cost of the Arab region. But one might wonder if this opportunistic collaboration is now coming to an end. In the past year, several incidents with global implications have shown that the two countries are more and more in opposition to each other.
The Azeri-Armenian conflict was the most visible and revealing. As last year’s military confrontation started, Turkey strongly supported Azerbaijan, while Tehran was indecisive, having to choose between its Armenian ally and its local Azeri community. It finally sided with Azerbaijan after feeling the pressure both domestically and regionally. To add insult to injury, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recited an Azeri poem calling for unification across borders, meaning Iran. This was considered by the mullahs to be a threat to the country’s sovereignty. Erdogan later claimed he was unaware of the true meaning of the poem, but the harm was done.
The second stage where tensions have been rising is Iraq. Turkey has launched military actions against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Iran has condemned. Tehran has rejected Ankara’s military presence in Iraq. The two countries have been squabbling diplomatically on this issue. In fact, Iran sees Turkey’s military presence as a challenge to its control over Iraq and a potential change in the power structure. In short, beyond the fight against the PKK, Iran does not want to see Turkey supporting Sunni tribes that could challenge its grip on the country. Turkey, meanwhile, accuses Iran of supporting the PKK beyond Iraqi territory and within its own borders.
The third stage is the oldest file and is linked to the northern Iraqi border: Syria. The same type of tension has existed for years and seems to be increasing. However, a bigger involvement from both Russia and Israel in the power arrangement has prevented the type of direct opposition we are witnessing between the two countries in Iraq. But as international efforts for a political solution in Syria increase, one can expect more quarrelling between Tehran and Ankara.
Turkey being more assertive militarily in the entire area, from northern Syria and northern Iraq up to Azerbaijan, hints at an impending new equilibrium between regional and global powers and a transition to a new Greater Middle East order. The interesting point is the absence of a direct American role in it.
So is Turkey, a NATO ally, playing the role of a US proxy for now? This is what Russia, Iran, the Europeans, Arab countries and Israel are wondering. On the ground, and despite some negative US declarations, Ankara seems to be serving US interests. It opposes and contains Iran using the same methods Tehran has been deploying in the region unchallenged for decades. It is also getting involved with boots on the ground when the US is no longer willing or able to do so. And it is keeping Russia in check, not only in Syria but also in Libya and, to a limited extent, in Central Asia. It is also negotiating and cooperating with Russia when needed while the US continues adding sanctions on Moscow.
However, Turkey is also irritating Europe and America’s Mediterranean allies, which could be the price to pay for its new role. It is part of the redrawing of the energy map in terms of gas supplies for the Middle East and Europe. This map seems to be placing Turkey at the center of all routes. It is not a cause for conflict, but it mirrors the geopolitical landscape where opposition and deal-making follow a thin line and co-exist. This is especially true between Iran and Turkey, but also Russia and Israel when it comes to the Mediterranean.
It is interesting to note that the Europeans are also pushing to enhance relations with Iran and bring about a renewal of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal. Energy needs and economic interests are pushing the Europeans in this direction. In the past year, French President Emmanuel Macron has been much more positive toward Iran than Turkey, although this changed slightly with the beginning of President Joe Biden’s mandate, as Macron has called for a better dialogue with Ankara.
On the ground, and despite some negative US declarations, Ankara seems to be serving US interests.
Khaled Abou Zahr
Biden and his administration will have to make an important decision for the Middle East, which will impact their pursuit of the Obama-era pivot to Asia. The White House will have to decide whether it can rely on a local proxy or ally such as Turkey to preserve its interests and act on its behalf, or if it will have to get involved directly. The US would definitely prefer not to get involved directly. The American foreign policy team will need to consider whether this would create an out-of-control monster and if other allies, both European and Arab, would accept this new order.
This decision will most probably need to materialize as the JCPOA gets back on track. The US administration needs Iran to refrain from increasing its destabilizing activities in the region like it did after 2015. Today, everything indicates that, to avoid this mistake and not get involved, the US will rely on Turkey to keep Iran in check. If this is the case, there will be a whole new set of confrontations and geopolitical deals between all stakeholders in the region.
- Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.