Can the US confront Iran by ignoring Turkey?
After a number of trial and error moves, U.S. President Donald Trump has come up with one of the most hawkish security teams in recent memory – perhaps even more hawkish than that of George W. Bush.
A hardline former soldier, Jim Mattis, is already serving as Trump’s secretary of defense. The president also recently removed his first choice as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, in favor of the hardline Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Mike Pompeo. In place of Pompeo at the CIA, Trump has nominated Gina Haspel, a CIA veteran accused of carrying out torture interrogations. Most recently, he has brought back one of Bush’s neo-con ideologues, John Bolton, to government as National Secretary Adviser.
Bolton still supports the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, despite all the catastrophic consequences that are still playing out today, including the empowering of al-Qaeda and emerging of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during the early phases of the Syrian civil war. Bolton is also a strong supporter of taking a harder line against Iran, partly motivated by defense of Israel because Iran’s military presence has effectively come closer to Israeli borders because of the Syrian war.
Richard Haass, the president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), posted the following tweet on March 23 after Bolton’s appointment: “[Trump] is now set for war on 3 fronts: political vs Bob Mueller, economic vs China/others on trade, and actual vs. Iran and/or North Korea. This is the most perilous moment in modern American history-and it has been largely brought about by ourselves, not by events.”
Haass apparently drew these correlations because of two particular actions taken by Trump prior to the appointment of Bolton. The first was the resignation of Trump’s lead lawyer John Dowd from the legal team handling the FBI’s Russia investigation overseen by Mueller. The second was Trump’s directive to level tariffs on Chinese imports worth about $50 billion, while also planning a raft of new trade restrictions in protection of U.S. trade interests.
The first step in Haass’ analysis has little to do with Turkey. The second has an angle affecting Turkey’s commercial interests - including steel exports to the U.S. - that will perhaps damage but not destroy the Turkish economy. But the third step and its Iran angle has a lot to do with Turkey and Turkish interests.
Turkey is the only NATO country that has a border with Iran, often described as the oldest land border in the world, first established in 1639. Turkey is also the only NATO country with a majority Muslim population, most of whom are Sunni in contrast with Iran, where the overwhelming majority are Shiite. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocracy, while the Republic of Turkey’s constitution describes Turkey as a secular democracy. The two nations have been historical rivals in the region for nearly 1,000 years, and most recently in Iraq and Syria they have taken radically different positions. Turkey is not happy with growing Iranian influence in Baghdad or Tehran’s support to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus through the presence of tens and thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and pro-Iranian militias.
However, Ankara and Tehran also have some common interests. Trade relations are an important part of this: Turkey has long imported oil and gas from Iran for its continuous economic growth, despite U.S. sanctions. The gas-for-gold trade between Turkey and Iran in the past became the subject of a court case in New York, in which an executive of a Turkish state bank was tried amid Turkish protests. Iran is also an important land route for Turkish trade with countries in Central Asia. In addition, the two countries have a security concern in common: The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was established in 1978 in Turkey with a program to carry out an armed campaign to carve out an independent Kurdish state from the territories of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Despite having opposite views about the al-Assad regime, one of the reasons why Turkey, Iran and Russia are cooperating for “de-escalation zones” in Syria within the framework of the Astana Process is their professed wish to protect the territorial integrity of Syria. Turkey and Iran (and also Iraq) believe that if the PKK – through its Syrian extension the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia the People’s Protection Units (YPG) - manages to carve out territory from Syria, it would not stop there. These fears are further amplified by the U.S.’s current backing for the PYD/YPG under the PR-friendly name of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), despite the PKK’s official designation as a terrorist organization by the U.S.
The SDF is being used as the ground force of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) against ISIL in Syria due to the no-boots-on-the-ground policy of former U.S. President Barack Obama. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has strongly objected to this policy, finding support on the issue from Russian President Vladimir Putin. That support enabled Turkey to carry out the recent anti-terror operations in the northwestern Syrian district of Afrin.
For all these reasons, if Trump with his current team really wants to confront Iran in a bolder way then he cannot possibly do that while ignoring Turkey. His reported recent suggestion over the phone to French President Emmanuel Macron to secure better relations with Turkey could therefore indicate new developments in this part of the world.