Economic effects matter more for Turkey
Even at better times in the past when Turkey’s loyalty as a “trustable ally” was not questioned, Turkish governments have always opposed Washington’s Iran policies.
Not that Iran is seen as a friend by Turkey. On the contrary, even though Turkish officials would proudly say that the two countries have not gone to war since 1639, the two have never considered each other as best pals.
Even though the two regimes were ideologically opposed to each other - with one being staunchly secular while the other being an Islamic Republic, Turkey has always opted for engagement with Iran. On the bilateral level, for instance, it took decades of convincing a skeptical Iran to finally accept building a natural gas pipeline between the two countries, which started to operate in 2001.
At the international level, Ankara has also favored engagement by negotiations rather than confrontation by sanctions even though the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran would have posed an existential threat to Turkey. American diplomats would have trouble understanding why Turkey would oppose sanctions to force Iran to stop its nuclear activities.
First of all, sanctions meant economic loss for Turkey, and second, Ankara was convinced that sanctions would never stop Iran and that on the contrary, confrontation would consolidate the hands of the mullahs making a transition towards a moderate democratic regime in Iran nearly impossible.
This essential line, which took shape before the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, constituted the backbone of Turkey’s policy towards Iran and continues to remain so to this day.
With the AKP, Iran’s religious fanaticism stopped being an irritant. Turkey’s new rulers stepped up efforts for further engagement with Iran, negotiating a nuclear deal which collapsed in 2010, leading to additional U.N. sanctions.
Turkey, which was a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council at that time became the only Western country to say no to the sanction decision, in a move that was seen as an early sign of the AKP government drifting away from the Western alliance.
But this decision did not necessarily lead to better relations between Ankara and Teheran as 2010 coincided with Arab uprisings. While the religious character was no longer an irritant, the Iranian regime’s sectarian character started to become one, when Turkey ended its decades-long policy of remaining neutral in the Middle East’s sectarian wars during the Arab spring.
In the second half of the 2010s, Iran started to gain ground against the United States in Iraq especially thanks to its victories against ISIL. While Iranian gains in Iraq did not make Turkey particularly happy, it was its involvement in Syria that has been costly for Turkey.
If it were not for Russian and Iranian active support in the field, Turkish-supported Sunni opposition could have defeated the Shiite dominated al Assad regime.
That’s why Turkey decided to sit down with Russia and Iran in a diplomatic framework called the Astana process to end the war in Syria.
When it comes to the United States, Turkey’s relations took a strong hit due to the sanctions-busting case.
A high-level executive of state-owned Halk Bank served prison time on accusations by the U.S. that he circumvented sanctions on Iran. Halkbank continues to face potential U.S. fines at a time when relations with Washington are already tense due to Turkey’s decision to purchase anti-ballistic missiles from Russia.
This is the latest in the complex web of relationships within the Turkey – U.S. – Iran triangle.
It is too early to predict the consequences of the U.S. killing of one of Iran’s strongest men Qasem Soleimani.
At this stage, we need to carefully observe the economic consequences. The prospect of increasing instability, together with a rise in oil prices, will bring additional burdens to the country’s ailing economy, which remains a top priority for millions of Turks who have heard Soleimani’s name for the first time.