The twists and turns of political developments in the Middle East largely stem from the rivalry between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. While Iran seeks greater influence in countries with significant Shiite populations, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are sparring on one territory, both claiming leadership in the Sunni world: Turkey by “birthright,” and Saudi Arabia – by the “right of the strongest,” i.e. of the most economically advanced actor boasting the strongest army in the region.
All this, coupled with Turkey’s ongoing efforts to crush radical Kurdish nationalism, has resulted in a certain degree of rapprochement between Ankara and Tehran, which views the Saudis as its main rival in the Middle East. The two countries are closely intertwined economically and this also contributes to this process with Ankara and Tehran planning to ramp up their annual trade turnover to $30 billion. And this without mentioning the “gray” commodity turnover between the two, which many Turkish experts believe is almost commensurate with the official one as Turkish companies are actively helping their Iranian counterparts to overcome sanctions.
With all this being said, the two empires’ centuries-old rivalry for the status of the defender of the “only right” trend in Islam is still being felt today. The mere fact that Shiite clerics in power in Tehran, and “moderate” Sunni Islamist ones with close affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood calling the shots in Ankara, any significant foreign policy cooperation between the two countries is simply out of the question.
Moreover, in Syria, Iran and Turkey have in recent years been pursuing diametrically opposite goals, with Tehran trying to keep the Alawite leadership in power (for reasons of preserving the country’s territorial integrity), and Ankara trying to overthrow it, albeit under the very same slogan. Even though Turkey has recently softened it anti-Assad rhetoric, its officials still stick to its hardline position during media interviews.
Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia equally dislike Israel and, to varying degrees, the United States, despite the fact that Riyadh and Ankara are “strategic allies” of Washington, which views the Middle East as a very important region, regardless of whatever political or economic fluctuations may be happening there. Small wonder that this situation helped propel Islamic radicals to the political foreground. Russia’s military and political activity in the region was dictated by the need to keep these jihadist extremists away from its borders. With relations between Tehran and Ankara on the one side, and Washington on the other being strained as they are, this helped Russia to gain a foothold in the Middle East as a counterweight to the United States, and act as an intermediary between the conflicting parties.
In Syria, Russia is coordinating its moves with both Iran and Turkey. Even though President Bashar Assad remains in power primarily thanks to Russia’s assistance, Iran’s influence on Damascus is hard to overestimate.
Indeed, Tehran has spared no effort to support the current Syrian government, and with pretty good reason too: with Sunni Muslims making up the majority of the Syrian population, their coming to power, hypothetical as it may seem, would almost certainly block Iran’s access to the Mediterranean Sea by breaking the “Shiite axis” of Iran – Iraq – Syria – Lebanon.
In their bid to check Turkey’s military activity in Syria, Tehran has repeatedly signaled its desire to help establish a dialogue between Damascus and Ankara. With little success though, because Turkey rejects any contacts with Damascus. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once branded Bashar Assad as a “bloody tyrant,” whose days were numbered, and he just can’t retract his words now because this would put him in a “face-losing” position. Besides, admitting mistakes is not the best-known trait Turkish mentality is famous for.
More recently, at a joint news conference with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara on April 16, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif supported the idea of “liberating” northern Syria (apparently from Kurdish units and US forces).
“The only way to ease Turkey’s concerns about the terrorist threat in the border zone with Syria would be to deploy government (i.e, Syrian – A. I.) forces at the border,” he said in a statement that reflected Tehran’s demand for a withdrawal of Turkish troops from the neighboring country’s territory. Apparently surprised by such an openly “unfriendly” declaration, the Turkish Foreign Ministry left this statement without comment.
Emboldened by its closer alliance with Russia, Turkey is going ahead with its task of neutralizing the “Kurdish threat” from the south and support the Syrian Turkomans. Simultaneously, it keeps a certain distance with Russia by flirting with Washington, despite the US’ support for the Syrian Kurds’ military-political structure, its refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, and even vague hints made by some Turkish politicians about Washington’s alleged backing for the 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey.
Meanwhile, the United States has been working hard not to “lose” Turkey, which boasts the strongest army in the region and a unique geopolitical position. As for Turkey, despite its “blusterous” rhetoric, it apparently seeks no serious quarrel with Washington.
Indeed, Ankara’s relations with Washington, which have recently been pretty unstable, are looking up now with President Erdogan and members of his inner circle recently making conciliatory statements and telling the US not to look for political motives behind the planned delivery of Russian air defense systems to Turkey, and being ready to discuss with the US military the possible risks of adopting these systems, and, if necessary, “to change the parameters of S-400 missiles” (the Americans have yet to respond to this proposal), assurances that these air defense systems will cover only Ankara and Istanbul (in case of a new coup attempt by the military using NATO planes the Russian missiles would target as a “foe”? – A. I.). Moreover, Ankara is ready to consider a new US proposal for the sale of Patriot missiles, and is looking forward to continued cooperation in the joint production of F-35 fighters.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar summed up his recent visit to the United States on a conciliatory note, essentially blaming non-specialists for the current tensions in his country’s relations with Washington.
“Yes, we have problems. But no one will solve them for us. I hope that a solution, in one way or another, will be found shortly. Sometimes we have a serious misunderstanding, misrepresentation of information… Politicians, senators do not know the details of some of the topics being discussed. And some details have an impact on decisions that are being made.”
Treasury and Finance Minister Erdogan Berat Albayrak’s visit to Washington where he took part in IMF- and G20-organized events was one in a series of fence-mending steps. During his April 16 meeting with President Donald Trump, Albayrak handed him a personal message from President Erdogan, which didn’t go unanswered. According to Turkish media reports, during the meeting with Trump, Albayrak raised the issue of the S-400 missile systems (and this at a time when the Turkish defense minister was right there in Washington!). Albayrak described the meeting as a success, adding that President Trump had responded to the arguments in favor of acquiring the Russian air defense system with understanding. Later on, however, The World Street Journal cited its sources as saying that the sides had “failed to break the impasse on the Russian missile-defense system.”
It looks like journalists will hardly be able to learn the content of President Erdogan’s personal message to Trump any time soon, but the mere fact that the Turkish president could entrust the transfer of the letter only to his relative (son-in-law) gives ample food for speculation.
Realizing that Ankara would not budge on its plans to purchase the S-400 missiles from Russia, Washington replaced the stick with a carrot, with the US Special Representative for Syria, James Jeffrey assuring Turkey that Washington was fully aware of Ankara’s security concerns about the latest threats emanating from northern Syria, and that Washington would work together with Ankara to create a safe zone in Syria next to the Turkish border, without the presence of the [Kurdish] People’s Protection Units (YPG).
“We will work with Turkey to ensure that zone remains free of any threat to Turkey, and introduces stability,” Jeffrey said.
Jeffrey emphasized that the two countries have been and continue to be geostrategic partners.
In conclusion, the US diplomat flattered Ankara by saying that “Turkey is the voice of about half of the Syrians who are opposition-minded (in relation to the current regime – A. I.).
After Washington said it would withdraw its forces from northeastern Syria, Ankara stopped announcing its imminent military offensive in this region, apparently hoping that with the European allies relinquishing their responsibility for the region, the Americans would hand their command over to Turkey. Something apparently went wrong though, and so Ankara confirmed its intention to acquire the S-400 air defense system from Russia. What we see now is a renewed attempt by Washington and Ankara to settle their differences, but on conditions that favor Turkey more than they do the United States. If this attempt succeeds, then the other participants in the Syrian “Big Game” may need to change their tactic and bring itin line with the new reality.
First published in our partner International Affairs
Chinese purchases of Iranian oil raise tantalizing questions
A fully loaded Chinese oil tanker ploughing its way eastwards from two Iranian oil terminals raises questions of how far Beijing is willing to go in defying US sanctions amid a mounting US military build-up in the Gulf and a US-China trade war.
The sailing from Iran of the Pacific Bravo takes on added significance with US strategy likely to remain focused on economic rather than military strangulation of the Iranian leadership, despite the deployment to the Gulf of an aircraft carrier strike group as well as B-52 bombers and a Patriot surface-to-air missile system.
As President Donald J. Trump, backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appears to be signalling that he is not seeking military confrontation, his administration is reportedly considering a third round of sanctions that would focus on Iran’s petrochemical industry. The administration earlier this month sanctioned the country’s metals and minerals trade.
The sailing raises the question whether China is reversing its policy that led in the last quarter of 2018 to it dramatically reducing its trade with Iran, possibly in response to a recent breakdown in US-Chinese trade talks.
“The question is whether non-oil trade remains depressed even if some oil sales resume, which I think it will. That’s the better indicator of where Chinese risk appetite has changed. Unfortunately Iran‘s reprieve will be limited—but better than zero perhaps,” tweeted Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, head of Bourse & Bazaar, a self-described media and business diplomacy company and the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.
A Chinese analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera argued that “China is not in a position to have Iran’s back… For China, its best to stay out” of the fray.
The stakes for China go beyond the troubled trade talks. In Canada, a senior executive of controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.
Reports that Western companies, including Kraft Heinz, Adidas and Gap, wittingly or unwittingly, were employing Turkic Muslims detained in re-education camps in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, as part of opaque supply chains, could increase attention on a brutal crackdown that China is struggling to keep out of the limelight.
The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the crackdown but has stopped short of sanctioning officials involved in the repressive measures.
Bourse & Bazaar’s disclosure of the sailing of the Pacific Bravo coincided with analysis showing that Iran was not among China’s top three investment targets in the Middle East even if Chinese investment in the region was on the rise.
The Pacific Bravo was steaming with its cargo officially toward Indonesia as Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was touring his country’s major oil clients, including China, in a bid to persuade them to ignore US sanctions.
A second tanker, the Marshal Z, was reported to have unloaded 130,000 tonnes of Iranian fuel oil into storage tanks near the Chinese city of Zhoushan.
The Marshall Z was one of four ships that, according to Reuters, allegedly helped Iran circumvent sanctions by using ship-to-ship transfers in January and forged documents that masked the cargoes as originating from Iraq.
The unloading put an end to a four-month odyssey at sea sparked by buyers’ reticence to touch a cargo that would put them in the US crosshairs.
“Somebody in China decided that the steep discount this cargo most likely availed … was a bargain too good to miss,” Matt Stanley, an oil broker at StarFuels in Dubai, told Reuters.
The Pacific Bravo, the first vessel to load Iranian oil since the Trump administration recently refused to extend sanction exemptions to eight countries, including China, was recently acquired by China’s Bank of Kunlun.
The acquisition and sailing suggested that Bank of Kunlun was reversing its decision last December to restrict its business with Iran to humanitarian trade, effectively excluding all other transactions.
The bank was the vehicle China used in the past for business with Iran because it had no exposure to the United States and as a result was not vulnerable to US sanctions that were in place prior to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.
China’s willingness to ignore, at least to some extent, US sanctions could also constitute an effort to persuade Iran to remain fully committed to the nuclear accord which it has so far upheld despite last year’s US withdrawal.
Iran recently warned Europe that it would reduce its compliance if Europe, which has struggled to create a credible vehicle that would allow non-US companies to circumvent the sanctions, failed to throw the Islamic republic an economic lifeline.
In a letter that was also sent to Russia and China, Iran said it was no longer committed to restrictions on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks, and could stop observing limits on uranium enrichment at a later stage.
Russian president Vladimir Putin warned in response to the Iranian threat that “as soon as Iran takes its first reciprocal steps and says that it is leaving, everyone will forget by tomorrow that the US was the initiator of this collapse. Iran will be held responsible, and the global public opinion will be intentionally changed in this direction.”
The Iran Question
Will there be war with Iran? Will there not be war with Iran? The questions are being asked repeatedly in the media even though a single carrier task force is steaming up there. The expression is old for the latest carriers are nuclear powered. Imagine the mess if it was blown up.
There are two kinds of weapons in the world … offensive and defensive. The latter are cheaper, a fighter plane compared to a bomber. If a country does not (or cannot afford to) have offensive intent, it makes sense to focus on defense. It is what Iran has done. Moreover, its missile centered defense has a modern deadly twist — the missiles are precision-guided.
As an Iranian general remarked when questioned about the carrier task force: some years ago it would’ve been a threat he opined; now it’s a target. Iran also has a large standing army of 350,000 plus a 120,000 strong Revolutionary Guard and Soviet style air defenses. In 2016 Russia started installation of the S-300 system. It has all kinds of variants, the most advanced, the S-300 PMU-3 has a range similar to the S-400 if equipped with 40N6E missiles, which are used also in the S-400. Their range is 400 km, so the Iranian batteries are virtually S-400s. The wily Putin has kept trump satisfied with the S-300 moniker without short-changing his and China’s strategic ally. The latter continuing to buy Iranian oil.
Iran has friends in Europe also. Angela Merkel in particular has pointed out that Iran has complied fully with the nuclear provisions of the UN Security Council backed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e. the Iran nuclear deal. She is mustering the major European powers. Already alienated with Trump treating them as adversaries rather than friends, they find Trump’s bullying tiresome. President Macron, his poll ratings hitting the lowest, is hardly likely to engage in Trump’s venture. In Britain, Theresa May is barely able to hold on to her job. In the latest thrust by senior members of her party, she has been asked to name the day she steps down.
So there we have it. Nobody wants war with Iran. Even Israel, so far without a post-election government does not want to be rained upon by missiles leaky as its Iron Dome was against homemade Palestinian rockets.
Topping all of this neither Trump nor Secretary of State Pompeo want war. Trump is as usual trying to bully — now called maximum pressure — Iran into submission. It won’t. The wild card is National Security Adviser John Bolton. He wants war. A Gulf of Tonkin type false flag incident, or an Iranian misstep, or some accident can still set it off.
In Iran itself, moderates like current President Hassan Rouhani are being weakened by Trump’s shenanigans. The hard liners might well want to bleed America as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iran’s game just started
By announcing that Iran will begin keeping its excess uranium and heavy water, the Islamic Republic now sends a firm and clear message to the west, exactly one year after U.S. president, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from its nuclear deal with Iran.
At this point, it seems that Iran has made a wise decision. Over the last year, the European troika has not only done anything to revive the nuclear deal or bring any kind of benefit to the Iranian nation, but they have actually backed up U.S. by developing new plans to undermine Iran’s “missile work”, and diminish its “power in the region” as well as its “nuclear technology”.
As stated in clauses 26 and 36 of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
(JCPOA), if the other side fails to meet its obligations, Iran is entitled to
partially or completely end its commitments as well. So, Iran’s recent decision
could be analyzed both on legal and strategic terms.
However, it seems that the strategic aspects of Iran’s decision are even more important than its legal aspects. This decision is strategically important because it stops Washington and European troika to carry out their anti-Iran scheme, a dangerous scheme that they actually started devising when Trump took the office in 2017.
At the time, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president played a major part in carrying out the west scheme. A scheme based on enforcing Iran to keep its “nuclear promises” and stay committed to a “distorted nuclear deal” while “U.S. had abandoned the deal”, and at the same time, trying to “diminish Iran’s power in the region” and “reduce its missile activities”.
All other actions of Europeans toward Iran were also simply targeted at carrying out this major plan, including how they constantly changed their strategies toward Tehran, and how Germany, U.K. and France intentionally delayed in launching the alternative trade mechanism (Instex) with Iran.
Now, Iran’s decision to keep its Uranium and heavy water is definitely in compliance with JCPOA, and more importantly, it will seriously undermine the “American-European” joint plan against Iran. This also explains why French government was so distressed by Iran’s new nuclear strategy and had such a quick reaction, considering that Emmanuel Macron, the French president and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister both have had important roles in carrying out the American-European anti-Iran scheme.
At any rate, what is clear now is that the game has just started! And the Iranian political system and specially the foreign ministry have a great mission to run this game wisely.
In following days, the European troika might want to force Iran into changing its decision by threats such as reviving the European Union sanctions against Iran or even taking Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council (so that Trump administration can meddle in Iran’s affairs). But, it is time for Iran political system to be adamant in its decision.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry should clearly ask the Europeans to choose one of these options, either Iran will “further reduce its commitments to the nuclear deal” or the Europeans should do something practical to “protect the rights of Iranian nation”.
It is also necessary that the Iranian political system reveals the American-European joint anti-Iran scheme to the people so that the true nature of Europeans is showed to Iranians. In that case, Europe and specially the European troika will completely lose their reputation.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
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