Emerging Rupture in Iran-Turkey Relations

By Meir Javedanfar

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suddenly found himself reassessing his government's burgeoning ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran - and sooner than expected.

One of the reasons Turkey agreed to Iran's demands and voted against new UN Sanctions was because the Iranian government promised that it would continue to negotiate with the West. However, it did not take long for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to break his promise. Soon after the UN resolution was passed, the Iranian leader declared, through Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that all negotiations will be suspended for two months.

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This has clearly angered the Turks, who may not be able to stand by Tehran for very much longer. And why should they? The U.S. government is already breathing down Erdogan's neck, and word is that the meeting between the two sides at last month's G20 summit in Canada was tense. Obama arrived late to the meeting, and there were no joint press statements or photographs taken together.

This, in addition to other reports that the U.S. canceled its participation at a recent regional security conference in Turkey a mere 12 hours before it started.

The Turkish government knew well in advance that its decision to back Iran in the UN would raise the ire of the Americans. However, they hoped that the merits of their relationship with Tehran would compensate for that and make such a policy worthwhile. Reality is proving otherwise. The Brazilians soon realized after sanctions passed that it wasn't worth their while to defend Iran's nuclear cause. The Turks, based on Washington's reaction and the fact that Tehran broke its promise of negotiations, could very well reach the same conclusion - and sooner than many expected.

This does not mean that Turkey is going to break relations with Tehran, nor does it mean that it will distance itself from Iran altogether. What it does mean is that Erdogan and his AKP party will reduce their support for Iran's cause in the UN. They will stop acting like Ali Khamenei's lawyer and defender in the West, because that's what Khamenei wanted from them all along, and he was prepared to pay handsomely for it with a cheap gas deal and lucrative contracts for Turkish companies.

Now that new sanctions are going to be imposed by the United Nations, as well as the U.S. and the EU, the Iranian government is going to find it harder to buy political support at the UN.

One major reason will be the decline in value of Iranian incentives. There are few countries in the world who would now prefer to side with Iran against the west. This means it will be more difficult for Khamenei to find heavy weight countries from the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) to back its stance. Even Hugo Chavez is not as vociferous as he once was; snubbed by Iran's ties with Brazil, he did not attend the recent nuclear summit in Tehran.

This is just one impact of sanctions. There are also domestic implications. Some countries, including Israel, have dismissed the latest round of sanctions against Iran. The Iranian government has not. Ahmadinejad has already started a domestic PR campaign to calm nerves. In a recent interview he tried to downplay the impact of sanctions by saying that the U.S. and Iran do not have any economic relations, therefore the latest round of sanctions won't have any impact on Iran's economy.

This is of course wrong. Although direct economic trade between both countries is not very much, the new round of sanctions are nevertheless going to hit the economy hard. First and foremost, it is going to become more difficult for American companies who were using the United Arab Emirates to resell their products to Iran. This is partly due to the UAE's commitment to abide by the new sanctions.

There is also the oil sector. The Iranian oil industry needs close to $140 billion of investment over the next 10 years in order to maintain its current production capacity. The new round of sanctions by the U.S. and the EU will complicate the Iranian oil industry's abilities to attract the investment it needs to keep functioning. It will also make it far more expensive and difficult for them to buy equipment for this all important sector. This is a serious threat, one which in the long term could threaten the oil industry with a possible meltdown.

Nuclear armed or not, these are dangers which Iran's leaders can only ignore at their own peril.

Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and a regular contributor to RealClearWorld. He is co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran.

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