Why Ankara should not be helping Iran go nuclear

Will a nuclear Iran be good or bad for Turkey? If Iran goes nuclear, it will become the regional hegemon, extinguishing Ankara’s hopes of becoming a key player in the Middle East.

Recently, however, Turkey has helped Iran circumvent international sanctions that target its nuclearization. Turkish companies and banks regularly abuse the financial system to facilitate payments to the Islamic republic, perhaps unwittingly assisting its effort of becoming a nuclear power. Turkey’s failure to prevent this type of abuse not only pokes a finger in the eye of the West, but also allows a rogue regime to fill its coffers with hard currency and materiel as it attempts to become the dominant power in the region – at Turkey’s expense.

The Turkish-Iranian relationship has revolved around bilateral trade. In 2008, the two countries conducted $10 billion of business, and officials from both countries have called for an increase to $20 billion by 2012. Iran exports mostly oil and gas to the Turkish market. Naturally, Turkey wants to fuel its economy, and Turkish officials have made it clear that they will look to all available sources of energy, including Iran.

The international community has assured Ankara of its commitment to Turkish energy needs, and has pointed out that in the past, Iran has proven to be an unreliable partner in this regard. Since other sources of energy are available to Turkey, Ankara’s insistence on buying oil from a rogue regime seems to demonstrate a strong desire to do business with Iran.

What is really behind Ankara’s insistence on developing and strengthening its relationship with Tehran? There appear to be two primary motivating factors: an aversion to regional instability and a desire to get closer to the Tehran regime.

Ankara seems to fear new American or coalition military action in the region, including an attack on Iran, more than it fears a nuclear-armed Iran. Turkey’s present reality is shaped by the instability in Iraq caused by the second Gulf War, and the low-intensity conflict that continues to the present. According to a recent poll, 43 percent of Turks consider the biggest threat to Turkey to come from the United States, while only 3 percent believe it comes from Iran.

There are those who people believe that the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has an ideological agenda that favors Tehran’s regime. One way of determining whether this is true is the party’s stance on Tehran; Iran should serve as a litmus test for the leanings of the AKP.

If seen in this light, the Turkish government’s stance on Iran is telling. Ankara has consistently expanded its financial ties to Iran. For instance, Iranian Bank Mellat, blacklisted by both the United States and the United Nations, has been operating openly in Turkey. Mellat branches conduct business in Istanbul, Ankara, and İzmir, despite the U.N. restrictions on the bank for facilitating payments tied to Iran’s nuclear program. Mellat was also designated by the U.S. Treasury Department for allowing weapons of mass destruction to spread. Subsidiaries of the bank around the globe have reportedly been involved in the Iranian missile industry, spreading terrorism and assisting Iran’s nuclear regime. In addition, Mellat has agreed to facilitate trade between Turkey and Iran using Turkish Liras and/or Iranian rials, which helps them avoid the use of euros and dollars. International financial regulators and sanction-watchers cannot easily detect payments that bypass the European or American financial systems.

Unfortunately, Iran’s ability to secure nuclear materiel has also, in part, been secured through Turkish territory. As an example, this past February, U.S. authorities disclosed that a Turkish company headed by an Iranian national, Milad Jafari, purchased millions of dollars’ worth of equipment for the Iranian nuclear and missile programs. The Jafari network exploited the lenient Turkish export rules to import proscribed materiel into Turkey from the European Union, the U.S., and elsewhere, then sent it on to Iran.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Turkey seems to be helping Iran go nuclear. This is bad news for Ankara, for once an authoritarian country becomes a nuclear power, its neighbors are subject to abuse. The example of North Korea is telling in this regard. Since becoming a nuclear power, Pyongyang has fired rockets over Japan and sunk South Korean ships. Does Ankara want a nuclear Iran next door that can flout international law at Turkey’s expense?