It has been 20 years since Iran’s interest in nuclear technology began to surface as a topic of international concern. Allegations that its uranium enrichment program was aimed at developing nuclear weapons and its failure to fully cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors deepened ongoing tensions between Tehran and Washington. Following Joe Biden’s election earlier this year, rumors of an Iran-U.S. rapprochement over the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the relationship has been showing smm=all signs of a thaw. A possible reset of the tattered relationship by virtue of a return to full compliance with the deal from which the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew in 2018 seems difficult, that is until at least the upcoming Iranian presidential elections in June.
Certainly, at the heart of the confrontation between Tehran and Washington lies the Islamic Republic’s suspected links to terrorism since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Blamed not just for backing militant groups, particularly Hezbollah and Hamas, for many years, Iran today is accused of providing military and financial support to Shia armed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, mainly since the power vacuum that emerged in the region after the Arab Spring. Closely linked to Iran’s support for Shiite proxy forces, concerns over the regime’s negative ideological stance vis a vis Israel and the U.S. provides another rationale for heightened tensions.
Against this background, the nuclear issue, coupled with Iran’s development and testing of ballistic missiles adds another obstacle to the normalization of relations. Although Iran regularly announces that its nuclear program is intended for civilian uses, the extensive investment it has thus far made on nuclear technology is largely perceived as a serious threat by the international community. Notwithstanding Iran’s objections and resistance, sanctions, seen a powerful political tool to pacify and prevent Iran’s growing influence beyond its borders, have become the cornerstone of broader Western policy toward the country.
Indeed, for Tehran, Trump’s campaign of “maximum pressure” has principally ended as the incoming Biden administration hints at a willingness to rejoin the agreement. Iran has thus turned to pressuring the U.S. to ease sanctions first, before it returns to compliance with the deal. Washington remains hesitant to take the first step for sanctions relief while advocating a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, fearing that the Islamic Republic might continue its threatening activities even if sanctions are relaxed. The mutual mistrust hinders the validation of negotiations towards a renewed commitment to the JCPOA.
Turkey and Iran: More like rivals Given the long-standing historical and strategic ties built on bilateral mutual gains, Turkey and Iran have generally maintained strong economic and diplomatic relations. NATO-member Turkey’s position towards Iran and its disputed nuclear activities has been essentially moderate since Iran’s intentions were first drawn to public attention. Ankara has often criticized international sanctions on its next-door neighbor yet voluntarily played a facilitator role between Iran and Western negotiators (P5+1) for a constructive political solution. In other words, Turkey has been a staunch supporter of the nuclear accord as much as sanctions relief on Tehran. Both as a regional competitor across the Middle East and a nuclear-armed Iran do not serve Turkey’s interests. Sweeping new sanctions re-imposed on its immediate neighbor of strategic and economic importance have proved quite costly for Turkey considering its over-dependence on Iranian energy and disrupted bilateral trade flows since the nuclear deal was struck. Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, the two regional powers have been drawn into ever-greater roles across the Middle East, extending their political depth and reach within the context of power vacuums created by the uprisings. Iran’s activities in Iraq and Syria against Turkish security interests led to a power struggles between the two, characterized by periods of extreme highs and extreme lows. The geopolitical confrontation, compounded by proxy conflicts, has highlighted diverging political agendas and region-wide interest calculus.
Under the circumstances, Turkey’s reactions can be seen as a combination of its long-term inclination for national security and preserving its status-quo. Ankara wants to limit Iran’s ability and influence as a key player in the region. It has thus aligned with the U.S. to contain Iran’s influence. Bearing this in mind, even though clashes of interests and policy divergences over who will dominate the region, such as Turkey’s concerns over Iran’s role in Syria and Iraq as well as Tehran’s support for the Assad administration, the two neighbors have proven to be able to cooperate in the long run due to common economic and security interests. An example of this was the 2016 Astana Peace Process for Syria, and more recently Ankara and Tehran’s cooperation against cross border attacks by Kurdish groups in Iraq. All in all, whether the U.S. will continue to participate in the Iran nuclear deal, the critical strategic mindset of Turkey will possibly be to motivate Iran to follow a responsible line, for now, while taking a wait-and-watch policy stance for the 2021 Iranian presidential elections.