By Yasar Yakis
October 24, 2018
The second set of US sanctions on Iran, which will target oil and gas exports, are due to enter into force on Nov 4. Washington wants to strangle the Iranian economy by crippling its energy industries.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in August that Turkey would continue to purchase Iran’s natural gas. This statement was further embellished by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu saying last month: “We will not support any sanctions. We continue our trade with Iran and Russia. We would have joined the sanctions if they were UN sanctions.”
In order to soften Turkey’s attitude on the sanctions issue, the US is now trying to create an atmosphere of optimism in the aftermath of the release by Turkey of the American pastor Andrew Brunson.
Turkey has several reasons to be reluctant to abide by the sanctions. First, it feels it will mainly be the Iranian people that will suffer from the sanctions. Turkey is reluctant to be part of an act that will punish the people of a neighboring country.
Second, Turkey does not want to waste the opportunity of trading with a neighboring country when it is cheaper and more convenient.
Third, it invested huge amounts in the construction of an oil and gas pipeline from Iran. It would be a considerable economic loss to leave this investment unused.
Fourth, the sanctions are only a unilateral US act that does not legally bind other countries.
Fifth, Turkey and Iran are two neighbors that will need each other in the future. If Ankara betrays this friendship at a moment when Tehran needs it most, the roles may change in the future and Turkey may need Iran’s support.
Last but not least, Turkey is over-dependent on Iranian and Russian oil and gas: All of its pipe-borne gas comes from these two countries. It imports almost half of its oil from Iran — in 2017 it was 44 percent — and has imported about 10 billion cubic meters of gas from Iran every year for more than 20 years. This corresponds to roughly one-fifth of Turkey’s gas consumption. So the US will be punishing the civilian population of one of its NATO allies if it insists on imposing sanctions on Turkey because of this trade.
In addition, the US also imposed sanctions on Russia, which is the other major source of Turkey’s oil and gas imports. Therefore, US embargoes encircle Turkey from two sides. Without Iranian and Russian oil and gas, Turkey’s industry will grind to a halt and the Turkish people will suffer the consequences. Furthermore, Ankara is cooperating closely with Russia and Iran in the Astana process. They were able to obtain concrete results in Idlib and elsewhere and Turkey would not like to spoil this relationship.
Another complication can be added to this. Turkey sold the government’s shares in the biggest state-owned oil refinery company, TUPRAS, which owns four of the five refineries in the country. Some of these shares were purchased by an American company, Global Securities (USA). Turkish refineries are geographically close to Iran, meaning it is cheaper to refine Iranian crude oil in these facilities. But now TUPRAS, which includes an American company, will negotiate with Washington as to whether its refineries should abide by the US embargo. It is an awkward situation because it is not the Turkish state but a foreign company that negotiates whether refineries located in Turkey should refine Iranian oil.
The sanctions issue is further complicated by two unrelated problems. One is the fallout from the Brunson case, as Turkey expects a reciprocal gesture from Washington in exchange for the pastor’s release. Ankara will be disillusioned if the US refrains from making such a gesture because of Turkey’s refusal to abide by the sanctions on Iran. This may destroy the expectations that the release of Brunson was to lead to a thaw in Turkey-US relations.
Turkey’s role will be crucial to the success of the US sanctions, but it will also have major impacts on Ankara’s relations with Washington on the one hand and with Tehran on the other.