Iran Middle East Politics & Diplomacy Turkey
IranSource June 9, 2020

Lifting the UN arms embargo on Iran: Insights into Turkey’s options

By Şaban Kardaş

Turkey has yet to formulate a policy on the expiration of the UN arms embargo on Iran in October. If a crisis ensues as a result of US attempts to extend the embargo, Ankara will most probably fall back to its default of avoiding taking a clear stance on US-Iran disputes. As it manages the tensions exerted by such a crisis, its reaction is likely to be based on a number of considerations, rather than the substantive issue of arms procurement dynamics per se, such as: the reverberation of a potential crisis for international and regional geopolitics; the evolution of US policy on Iran, particularly in view of the November US presidential elections; and the trajectory of US-Turkey relations, which is itself beset with several lingering crises.

Geopolitics surrounding the lifting of the arms embargo

From a Turkish perspective, the most likely scenario is one where the United States will find itself unable to prevent the lifting of the arms embargo at the United Nations. Keeping the embargo in place through the snapback of UN sanctions is far from certain at this point. Therefore, in all likelihood the United States may seek to address arms sales directly through bilateral engagements with potential stakeholders like Russia and China. Seen from Ankara, the Trump administration’s Iran policy remains predominantly bent on limiting Tehran’s regional influence, unlike the Barack Obama policy of a narrow focus on the nuclear file.

Short of a major reversal from the maximum pressure policy, the United States will do everything at its disposal to prevent Iran’s access to arms markets. In this situation, Turkey realizes that this issue is likely to emerge as an area of contention between the United States and Europe and Russia and China. Turkey is likely to closely watch the unfolding tensions, but will stop short of direct involvement.

A particular issue of concern to Ankara is whether Moscow might choose to supply advanced weapons systems to Iran, which the latter has long sought. Turkish observers believe Iran’s deficiencies lie in air capabilities and advanced electronics, but Russia and China may have their own reasons against rushing into future arms trade with Iran or providing it with advanced technology. If Russia does decide to sell some of the advanced systems—such as the Russian S-400 air defense missile system—to Iran, Turkey will hardly welcome this development.

Nonetheless, Ankara is unlikely to escalate this issue into a direct crisis with Moscow. For one, as a rising arms exporter, itself, Ankara will not challenge Russia’s sovereign right of choosing its own customers. Second, Iran’s procurement of such weapons does not constitute an immediate threat to Turkey, which is also covered by NATO security guarantees. If Iran ends up acquiring such systems, it is more likely to deploy them against US military capabilities in the Gulf, where major US airbases are also located.

Turkey and Iran are not entangled in a direct inter-state dispute, their deployment of military installments in shared border areas remain limited, and Turkey’s main air assets are stationed in western parts of the country. Instead, their confrontation is through proxies in regional theaters, such as Iraq and Syria, and it will be difficult for Iran to deploy such systems into third countries where they would constitute a more direct challenge to Turkish military capabilities.

US-Iran-Turkey triangle in a regional context

With that in mind, Turkey’s foreign policy agenda has been dominated by developments in Iraq and Syria. Ankara’s convergence or divergence with the United States and Iran on Iraq- and Syria-related issues will be a major factor in its reaction to the lifting of the embargo. On the one hand, after its recent Spring Shield Operation in Syria’s Idlib province and in view of ongoing military incursions in northern Iraq, Turkey is increasingly converging with the United States, while its common understanding with Iran is eroding.

In recent months, Turkey has been rather quiet on US policy on Iran, refraining from direct criticism of the “maximum pressure” policy. The widening wedge with Iran over Iraq and Syria may further incentivize Turkey to align with the US position, especially, if Tehran seeks to use the window presented by the lifting of sanctions to increase arms supplies to its proxies.

On the other hand, some irritants also remain that prevent a full convergence of Turkish and US perspectives on regional issues. For instance, if the US centers its strategy to counter the return of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) on YPG-dominated Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), once again, it will likely poison US-Turkish relations, which will fall back into the pattern seen before the Peace Spring Operation in Syria in Fall 2019. In such a scenario, the United States might end up opening new channels of financial and military supplies to the SDF—this will irritate Ankara and undermine the current understanding with Washington.

Therefore, the most critical determinant of Ankara’s reaction will be how Turkey-US relations unfold by October. One line of argument suggests, that if Ankara achieves progress in resolving some of its outstanding issues with Washington, it may have more room to maneuver, whereas the continuation of the current confrontational path might limit Turkey’s options and force it to go along with the United States.

Meanwhile, it is also possible to hear arguments that the escalation of the US-Iran crisis might be viewed as a welcome development, since it may present a bargaining chip for a new understanding with the United States in Iraq and Syria. More specifically, some security analysts assert that, in return for acquiescence to—if not collaboration with—US policy on Iran, Turkey may seek to extract some concessions in the defense industry, primarily, regarding some of the outstanding demands pertaining to the procurement of certain systems or technology transfers.

Granted, the US presidential elections in November remain a real gamechanger. Those willing to revive the Obama-era nuclear deal are working hard and, if the Democrats win the election, the new administration may revert away from the maximum pressure policy. Hence, Turkey will more than likely pursue a wait and see approach on the lifting issue to see how the broader US policy on Iran will take shape.

Prospects for Iran-Turkey cooperation in arms procurement?

A last question to ponder is whether Turkey may take advantage of this opening to venture into arms procurement deals with Iran. It remains premature to expect a vibrant arms trade between the two countries and the issue is nowhere on the agenda of the Turkish defense industry. First, Ankara will be concerned with the fallout from such a partnership on its troubled relationship with the United States, which is already overburdened with the outstanding issues. Second, defense industry firms are well aware of the toxic nature of any arms deal with Tehran. Many rely on partnership with the West and they will not want to be implicated in any US secondary sanctions as a result of deals with Iran. Likewise, in the case of some domestically produced systems, export licenses may require clearance from Western countries, which will practically prohibit any potential deal with Iranian companies. Third, regional competition will also, potentially, limit potential collaboration between the two countries.

Through the proxies they support, Turkey and Iran are on opposite sides of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, therefore, they are unlikely to procure for or supply the other party. Last, but not least, in addition to divergence in regional issues, both countries will not want to share their arsenal utilizing homegrown technology with the other, given lack of trust or concerns about reverse engineering, among other things.

In short, regardless of Turkey’s divergence with the United States on a crisis sparked by the lifting of the arms embargo, technical and political considerations suggest that direct defense industry cooperation between Ankara and Iran is unlikely in the short run. Moreover, if this issue escalates into a major point of contention internationally, Turkey—with no reason to put itself at the center of tensions—is more likely to pursue a hedging strategy to maximize its options than to involve itself in the crisis directly.

Şaban Kardaş is an associate professor of political science and international relations at TOBB-ETU University in Ankara. Follow him on Twiter: @sabankardas.

United Nations arms embargo on Iran

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Image: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia, 14 February 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS