Trump’s real problem is with Iran, not Turkey

Trump’s real problem is with Iran, not Turkey

These days the U.S. media as well as the Turkish one are dominated by the trial of Reza Zarrab, the Iranian-Turkish gold trader who pleaded guilty to breaking U.S. sanctions on Iran. Focusing on the bribery connections that Zarrab has claimed at a New York court in order to see whether it will somehow reach Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, people ignore the fact that Zarrab actually belonged to an Iranian network to bypass the U.S. sanctions in a gold for oil and gas trade. His boss Babak Zanjani has been sentenced to death in Iran after he failed to explain to Iranian courts the $2.5 billion difference in the accounts in a trade he carried out for the former Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government.

The case was the cherry on the cake of problems between the two NATO allies, Turkey and the U.S., reviving questions in the West on whether Turkey is drifting away from them and moving toward an axis with Russia and Iran, which Turkish authorities deny categorically.

But Iran is a problem for U.S. President Donald Trump, which is causing troubles for him, like the need to reshuffle his national security team.

Trump succeeded to pass his tax reform bill at the Senate in the early hours of Dec. 2 with Republican votes, fulfilling his first major election promise at a time when he seems to have no control left over Washington’s politics.

It coincided with another election promise: Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital at a time when his persistence on reviewing the nuclear deal with Iran is already giving signals of another imminent conflict in the Middle East, which is already troubled as actors are seeking to bring an end to the Syrian civil war and the unrest in Iraq.

When news about the resignation of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson broke during the Mediterranean Dialogues Forum, held between Nov. 30 and Dec. 2, where a number of top European, Asian and African diplomats gathered, very few of them were surprised.

Despite the fact that the reports were denounced as “fake” later on, the diplomats and scholars at the Rome forum had already started making speculations: CIA head Michael Pompeo was expected to replace Tillerson and the new CIA head was expected to be Senator Tom Cotton, a right-wing Republican considered to be a “Trump loyalist.”

When asked during a panel discussion, Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group commented that one of the major rifts in Trump’s foreign policy was Iran. “Saudi Arabia and Israel think [Barack] Obama was too weak on Iran,” he said. “If you have someone like Pompeo or Cotton who talk about regime change in Iran, the policy might change.” Ian Lesser of the German Marshall Fund endorsed Malley, saying, “There is a big gap [for Trump] between what is politically attractive and what is strategically possible.”

The impression is that behind Trump forcing to try to change the nuclear deal with Iran, there might be a motivation against Iran going beyond the deal, like changing the regime in Iran, meaning a foreign intervention. The CIA had done that before in 1953. The CIA, with the help of the British MI6, had overthrown Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who nationalized Iran’s oilfields, empowering Shah Reza Pahlavi who had given the control of his country’s oil and gas reserves to the Americans and British again. Pahlavi was overthrown in 1979 with a revolution dominated by Islamists, shifting the regime into an Islamic republic.

Regarding Middle East affairs, Trump is likely to rely on his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who seems to travel only to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel says that if the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and pro-Iranian Hezbollah militants get very close to its border with Syria, it will hit them. Its most recent hit was on Dec. 2. For any country, whether it’s Turkey or Israel, countering a threat posed against its borders and people could be seen as a legitimate response, especially if there are rival leaders in the adversary country - in this case Iran who thinks Israel should be erased off the map - but it is something else to try to wage war by relying on the financial and military power of the U.S.

Israel, some 20 years ago, used to perceive a number of countries as threats to its right to live and exist. Since then, Iraq, Libya and Syria have collapsed, Egypt sided with Saudi Arabia, and all are in a struggle to keep themselves in one piece.

“It is called the Persian Gulf where we are living,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had said a day earlier, “Not the Gulf of Mexico. They ask us ‘When you are leaving?’ Never. This is our home. The nuclear deal we signed with America is not the best deal for any of us, but it is the best that we could achieve,” he said.

Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief, in her speech at the Rome meeting said the EU was “for the continuation” of the deal. “The key priority is the full implementation of the agreement, and we conveyed this message to Iran and the U.S.,” Mogherini said. “We don’t need to be friends but that is because we could agree on it.”

She has a point. Turks and Iranians have never been close allies; they have been rivals throughout history. But the border between Turkey and Iran has not changed since 1639, being the oldest land border on earth, despite many regime changes in both countries and a lot in the world.

Ying Fu, the chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress of the U.N. Security Council’s permanent member China, underlined in her speech in Rome that the nuclear deal with Iran is working already and indirectly related that with the ongoing conflict with North Korea.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was more direct. “The U.N. announced [the International Energy Agency report on Nov. 23] a few days ago that Iran is in compliance with the deal,” he said. “Full stop. If the U.S. insists to change it, that would be a violation of the U.N. deal. If the U.S. drops out from this deal, what kind of an example would the leader of North Korea get out of it?”

Forcing Iran for a change in the deal as a ground for yet another hostility in the war-ravaged Middle East, with Iran having the support of the EU, Russia and China, the U.S. would be left with a handful of friends.

Trump’s problems with Erdoğan and the U.S.’s problems with Turkey are serious, but political. Once the political atmosphere gets better, the current problems could go away. The Iran issue, on the other hand, could grow the security and stability problems in the entire region more.

Murat Yetkin,