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Secretary of State John Kerry’s first overseas trip will bring him to Turkey on Friday, a once-close Western ally that has pivoted from America and Israel toward Iran.
Turkey has emerged as one of Tehran’s most prominent financial boosters in recent months, disregarding sanctions on Iran in increasingly bold ways.
Turkey is now believed to be trading ships and Coast Guard boats to Iran in return for its heavily sanctioned crude oil in a new scheme meant to skirt Western sanctions and enhance Tehran’s naval prowess.
Ankara has also taken to criticizing Israel, which has quietly expressed concern about the crumbling relationship with its former partner.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to Zionism as a “crime against humanity” Wednesday during a heavily criticized address at a United Nations event on tolerance.
Turkey’s unpredictability will likely force Kerry to walk a diplomatic tightrope as he asks for the Middle Eastern nation’s cooperation on a range of key issues, including the ongoing civil war in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program.
“Turkey is vital for any staging-ground issues, coordination, or possible NATO support in terms of any real action in Syria,” Steve Clemons, an Atlantic writer close to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, told the Washington Free Beacon. “It’s not an optional visit or discussion.”
However, Turkey’s efforts to skirt Iran sanctions “need to be addressed,” Clemons said. “If I were Kerry, I’d raise” the issue.
New Turkish reports suggest that in order to “evade U.S. sanctions” Iran is “considering trading the oil and gas it exports to Turkey for Turkish industrial products,” according to Today’s Zaman, an Istanbul-based publication.
“Iranians want to buy their products and they are particularly interested in purchasing coast guard boats, search and rescue vessels, river craft and small cargo ships,” the publication reported earlier this week.
“Demands like these have already been conveyed to Ankara and that they are awaiting answers from officials,” a Turkish official told the publication.
The cost of this new Iran-Turkish venture could top $3 billion, according to the report.
Reports of the deal come on the heels of Turkish efforts to trade upwards of 60 tons of gold in exchange for Iranian oil.
Halkbank, a majority state-owned Turkish lender, has facilitated these so-called “gold for gas” exchanges in violation of international sanctions.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Ross Wilson said that while Kerry could emphasize the issue of sanctions, he is more likely to take a softer approach.
“I believe that one objective of Secretary Kerry’s will be to brief the Turks on where the P5+1 talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan ended and to discuss plans for experts’ talks in Istanbul and a second formal round with the Iranians in Kazakhstan agreed upon for later this spring,” said Wilson, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.
“The core of this conversation should be what Turkey might be able to do with the Iranians to reinforce and support the P5+1 messages,” Wilson said. “The issue of sanctions is obviously part of that, but Turkey can be helpful in other ways, as well.”
Other Middle East experts said Kerry must show he is serious about plugging Turkey’s sanctions leaks.
“Kerry’s got to speak succinctly and carry a big stick. No more [sanctions] waivers,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who frequently writes about Turkey.
“Kerry’s got to understand that being secretary of state isn’t about logging miles, getting his name in the society page, or having an excuse to stay away from Teresa, but that U.S. national security is at stake,” Rubin said. “Erdogan can laugh his way to the bank, but if Washington doesn’t get serious about Turkish double-dealing on Iran, the results will be measured in kilotons.”
Clemons said he and several former diplomats were outraged to learn during a recent trip to the region that Turkey was trading gold for Iranian oil.
“We were quietly outraged that was going on,” Clemons said. “It’s dangerous to set that example out there.”
Erdogan’s latest anti-Israel rant, which drew a sharp rebuke from the Israelis, may have added a layer of tension to Kerry’s visit.
“He’ll probably ask Erdogan to dial down his rhetoric,” Clemons said, noting that he had not had a chance to speak to Kerry before his foreign jaunt.
The Israeli government sharply condemned Erdogan’s remarks against Zionism in a statement Thursday.
“We have seen the remarks on Zionism attributed to PM Erdogan in the Turkish media,” a spokesman in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote in an email. “These are hollow words that only reflect ignorance. Zionism is the national movement of the Jewish people, and to deny any people their right to self-determination and to their national movement is absurd.”
Wilson maintained that the ongoing civil war in Syria should top Kerry’s agenda.
“Syria is clearly topic number one, two, and three on Secretary Kerry’s agenda in Ankara—as it should be given the dramatic tragedy taking place there, its importance to U.S. and Alliance interests, and where Turkey sits on the front lines,” he said.
Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, said that Kerry will have to prove he has bold ideas to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis.
Turkish leaders “have been very frustrated by failure of U.S. leadership on the issue,” said Edelman, noting that more than 170,000 Syrian refugees have poured into Turkey. “They will be very interested in what Kerry is bringing and particularly the indications of stepped up non-lethal assistance to the opposition.”
Turkey remains disappointed in the Obama administration’s lack of concrete action in Syria, Ross said.
“Turkish leaders have been disappointed that tough U.S. rhetoric, especially in 2011 when President Obama and Secretary Clinton labeled Assad illegitimate and called for him to step down, has not been matched by action,” he said. “They want to see more U.S. leadership of a more effective international strategy to remove Assad, support the good guys fighting against him, and address humanitarian needs.”