Last week the US re-imposed sanctions on Iran. This was a direct result of the bold decision by US President Donald J. Trump to cease signing off the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of action (JCPOA). Negotiated under the Obama administration, the JCPOA sought to put a halt to Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief and the opening of the Iranian economy to the international community.
I am no fan of Donald Trump. I don't like his politics and I don’t like his style or approach. I also didn’t particularly enjoy watching The Apprenticeeither. So far, his presidency ranks as one of the worst; however, there are some important exceptions where his policies have been more or less right. The first was his decision scale back financial support for UNRWA (more about that in another post) and the second is his policy towards the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump was right to conclude that the JCPOA was a bad deal. It was significantly flawed for several reasons including the sunset clause which would allow Iran to restart its nuclear programme in less than ten years, the lack of unfettered and on the spot access for inspectors to enter top secret Iranian military facilities without prior approval, and the no mention of Iran’s ballistic missile programme. We also saw from the Israeli seizure of Iran’s nuclear archive that even though Tehran was more or less keeping to its obligations, it had failed to disclose its intricate and extensive research into developing a nuclear warhead. This in itself could be a breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, making the JCPOA worthless.
Just as importantly, the JCPOA made no reference to Iran’s foreign policy. This gave the Islamic Republic the financial lifeline it needed in order to spread its influence in the region, including its support for Bashar al-Asad, the butcher of Damascus who had no qualms about using chemical weapons against his own people on multiple occasions and whose torture chambers are a disgrace to humanity in the 21stcentury.
Meanwhile, recent reports of anti-regime protests and disturbances in Iran that trickle into the international news over the past few months do not do justice to the momentum growing against the Islamic Republic. Across Iran, from Mashad to Tabriz, many Iranians are voicing their anger at the regime which has crippled the prosperity of a whole generation of Iranians. Even at a crowded football stadium in Tehran fans chanted anti-regime slogans. The ongoing protests represents what can only be described as a revolutionary period. If there was ever a time when the regime was at its most vulnerable, it is now and is why the sanctions can be either effective in bringing down this heinous regime or at least temper Iran’s nefarious ambitions in the Middle East.
And what is the European Union’s reaction to all this? Brussels has been actively working against US sanctions and is, in effect, supporting one of the most nefarious regimes on Earth. The EU, which was never a party to the JCPOA (negotiated by the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), Brussels has decided to join ranks of Russia, Turkey and China, hardly the beacons of the world liberal order, to obstruct the effectiveness of the sanctions. Not only has Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, publically and loudly encouraged firms to defy the sanctions, but the EU has even launched the blocking statute, an attempt to shield European companies from US sanctions and limit the damage to their interests and dealings in the US. Also, the EU wants European companies who have contracts with Iranian firms to apply to the EU before halting operations.
In other words, the EU is actively working with some of the world’s worst human rights abusers in order to protect a theocratic autocracy which violates almost every article of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights from US sanctions, hampering and the dreams of ordinary Iranians who are risking their lives to protest the regime. All this so mega European firms such as Siemens, Total, Peugeot and Airbus can make profit. Shame on Brussels, shame on Berlin, shame on Paris, and, yes, shame on London.
Despite being in the process of leaving the EU, the UK has sided with the EU on this matter. This is despite the fact that unlike France or Germany, the UK’s trade with Iran only stands at a mere US$1.15 billion. Also, despite supporting the JCPOA and practically pleading the Iranian regime to release Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Iran has still not complied. This, if anything, is a reason why the UK should be supporting its great transatlantic ally. However, London has elected to side with the EU which has chosen the JCPOA as its causes belli against the US administration. If ever there was a morally dubious foreign policy decision of the EU and UK, this is it.
In my last post, I wrote about the underlying reasons for the decline of US-Turkish relations. I identified three main factors and a related forth. In brief I made the following points: 1) Turkey needs to be understood as a weak or fragile state because its internal threats are more of a priority than its external enemies, 2) Turkey considers itself to be an international power in its own right, but finds it difficult to reconcile its image of greatness with the reality that it is a medium sized power, 3) increased authoritarian rule means that the government and especially President Erdogan cannot blame shift when matters arise between Turkey and another state, 4) Turkey is no longer part of the western camp in the same way that it was before the rise of the ruling AKP.
It is far easier to identify the causes of the breakdown in US-Turkey relations than it is to find solutions. Nevertheless, I am going to give it a try. I will focus on solving the bilateral tensions associated with the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson and Turkey’s desire to purchase Russian S400s. There is a road map of sorts on the Manbij issue in northern Syria, so I will allow others to assess the efficacy of that arrangement, although I may mention it briefly.
But first, a question. With the exception of war or the threat of war, can you think of a case when a superpower power was able to make a smaller power do something which the smaller power considered detrimental to its national interest? This question was posed to me by one of my professors when I was an MA student. The answer is no. And if so, very rarely. If a country considers it against its national interest, there is little the stronger power can do. More often than not, the use or threat of force is inappropriate. Therefore, the trick is to convince the smaller power that it is in its national interest to comply with the policy of the more powerful state.
Recent reports have indicated that US and Turkish officials are in talks. The job of Washington’s officials is to convince Ankara that it is in Turkey’s national interest to release Pastor Brunson from house arrest as well as other US citizens and consular employees.
This is why the Magnitsky sanctions were a good start. Although symbolic, it demonstrated that Washington means business. Already the Turkish economy has taken a hit. The US must show that it is not going to back down, but even ready up the ante by highlighting that it is very serious about implementing additional sanctions. These new sanctions include those stipulated in the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act, which, if passed by Congress, would instruct the US directors of the World Bank International Finance Corporationand European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to vote against extending loans to Turkey. Also, the US should move ahead with legislation pertaining to the 2019 defence budget which would shut out Turkey’s involvement in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. Collectively, these are incredible tools because they pertain to both Turkey’s economic and security interests.
But there are more tools at Washington’s disposal. First, the US should not rush into a deal, but wait until Ankara feels the looming pinch of the sanctions. Time is on Washington’s side. Second, the US should make it clear in no uncertain terms that President Trump is an unpredictable figure. And just as he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he could support Congressional attempts to recognise the Armenian massacres of World War I as a genocide. Thirdly, playing to the internal security threat in Turkey, the US could kindly point out that they might not accept Turkey’s position that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria are related organisations (Washington currently insists that its support for Syrian Kurds is only through the SDF – an umbrella organisation dominated by the YPG). There are additional measures the US could take such as restricting Turkish participation in NATO operations and training exercises, reducing intelligence sharing, and taking measures against Turkey’s trade with Iran. However, I think these measures should be left off the table for now as they would do more harm than good.
The US should use the above as leverage to demand that Pastor Brunson and all other US citizens and consular officials are immediately released. But the White House can and should offer a few incentives to sweeten the deal. It could propose that it put in a word to the New York District Attorney and US court in order to allow Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive of the Turkish state owned Halkbank, who was found guilty of breaking the Iran Sanctions Act, to serve out the rest of his sentence in Turkey. Also, perhaps the Treasury could be convinced to slap Halkbank with just a medium sized fine – enough to deter other banks from violating Iranian sanctions, but not too high to hurt the Turkish economy.
As already mention, Turkey is a country where its internal security concerns are seen as more important than its external. Washington might want to play into this by offering to “look into” the activities of the Gulen movement in the US. Couched in vague terms, this will be enough for Ankara to be placated and able to publically save face, but not enough for the US to obligate itself. Also, to further sweeten the pill, Turkey could be offered an additional discount on Patriot missiles if it were to forgo the Russian S400 deal. Ankara would save billions of dollars on Russian hardware that has no compatibility with most of Turkey’s own equipment, let alone NATO’s.
Underlying all this is a message that Ankara needs to receive from Washington - it is in Turkey’s interests to be on good terms with the US and is most secure and economically prosperous when ties with the west are strong. Once this impasse is solved, the sides can move towards a transactional relationship, which, if played right, could be a harbinger of even closer ties in the future.
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