Turkey may find shift toward Iran costly

On Monday, Turkish State Minister for Foreign Trade Zafar Caglayan repeated that Ankara will not allow non-UN sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe to hamper its business with Iran. "Turkey will act in line with UN decisions. But decisions made by the United States on its own do not bind us," he stated.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said the same thing at a Turkish-Iranian business forum in Is­tanbul on Sept. 16. At the same forum, co-host Iran­ian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi proclaimed, "Today, we have no better friend than Turkey in the world. For Iran, for political security and economy, Turkey is a very important country." During the U.N.'s annual general assembly sessions in New York in late September, Turkish President Abdullah Gul questioned the effec­tiveness of sanctions on Iran according to a report in the Oct. 4 issue of Defense News. In interviews and speeches, Gul said Turkey would adhere to sanctions imposed by the UN, but that he did not think "punitive" eco­nomic measures were productive.

The UN Security Council imposed a fourth round of sanctions against Iran's financial and military sectors on June 9, but they had been watered down in negotiations with Russia and China. Turkey and Brazil voted against the sanctions after unsuccessfully proposing a nuclear fuel arrangement with Iran in an effort to head off a vote. Shortly after the UN action, Washington and its allies imposed additional sanctions against Iran's financial and energy sectors.

In early September, the U.S. Trea­sury Department's deputy assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes, Daniel Glaser, came to Turkey to seek coopera­tion. Caglayan was quoted in the Turkish press as saying,

A delegation from the USA came to Turkey and held talks with Turkish bankers. But they did not meet with me although I am the minister in charge of coordination of banks. Turkish banks have been put under pressure, which is completely against the principle of rule of law.

Impeding Tehran's ability to conduct international transactions or attract investment into its deteriorating oil industry are important pressure points. So is drying up shipments of gasoline to Iran, which lacks the refinery capacity to supply its transportation needs. The Wall Street Journal has reported that

Data from the Istanbul Exporters' Association of Chemical Materials show Turkey didn't export any gasoline to Iran in August, compared with 35,900 metric tons the previous month. Turkey's only oil refiner Tupras, said last month that it had stopped exporting petroleum products to Iran and wasn't liable to be penalized under the sanctions regime.

On Sept. 12.Erdogan's Islam-based Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a referendum on constitutional amendments that will strengthen its hold on power and undercut the pro-Western, secular foundations of Turkey's past policies in the region. However, the country's major banks and industrial groups have been expanding ties with the U.S. and Europe for decades. They are not eager to antagonize their Western partners over Iran and risk sanctions. This could put a further strain on relations between the modernizing elements and the Islamic elements in Turkish society and politics, an additional benefit of "third party" sanctions.

Ankara should be made to understand there will be costs to be paid from shifting towards an alignment with an increasingly militant Iran. Tehran may have oil wealth, but its market is small compared to Europe and America.