Iran, Turkey Meet Amid ‘Massive Sanctions Busting’ Schemes

First meeting between Iranian president and Turkey in nearly 20 years

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul, right, and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani / AP
June 9, 2014

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is in Turkey this week for the first official high-level meeting in nearly 20 years, sparking speculation that the two nations are growing closer as a means to offset U.S. power in the region and further solidify a deal meant to skirt U.S. sanctions on Tehran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani landed in Ankara on Monday to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other senior Turkish officials about boosting trade ties and fighting extremism in the region.

It is the first time an Iranian president has visited Turkey since 1996, leading regional experts to raise questions about Turkey’s dependability as a U.S. ally in the fight to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its continued efforts to skirt U.S. economic sanctions.

Rouhani's meeting with Erdogan comes at a critical time, as Western nations are set to resume talks with Iran in Geneva over its contested nuclear program.

As Rouhani and Erdogan meet, the Turkish foreign ministry undersecretary is in Washington for meetings with the State Department and White House National Security Council, according to regional reports. The meetings will reportedly focus on the Syrian civil war, collapsed peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, and Iran's nuclear program.

Turkey has been implicated in multiple sanctions-busting schemes that have helped Iran illicitly rake in cash despite U.S. sanctions.

The two nations have reportedly signed at least 10 new agreements since the meetings began.

"The 10 cooperation pacts signed between Iran and Turkey included agreement on joint film production, agreements on cultural, scientific, and educational exchanges, tourism cooperation programs, cultural heritage programs, cooperation between the two countries' post organizations and cooperation between the two countries' standard institutes," Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reported early Monday.

Trade between the two nations hit $2.1 billion in January and February and both nations have vowed to increase the level of trade to $30 billion by 2015.

In a meeting Monday with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul, Rouhani highlighted the need for Iran and Turkey to partner in fostering peace in Syria, where Iran has backed embattled president Bashar al-Assad. This has strained Iran's relations with Turkey, which opposes the Syrian president.

Turkey and Iran appear to be setting aside their differences in Syria in a bid to grow closer with one another.

"Iran and Turkey are resolved to fight violence, extremism, and terrorism and they use all their possibilities and power to this end and they are determined to increase their cooperation and spare no efforts in this regard," Rouhani was quoted as saying in a joint press conference Monday with Gul.

Rouhani is being accompanied on his two-day trip by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the lead negotiator in nuclear talks, and several other high level officials, including Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh.

Regional experts say that Rouhani’s trip is a sign that Turkey, once a close U.S. ally, is moving away from the West.

"All of this comes amidst reports of massive sanctions busting facilitated by Turkey on behalf of Iran. First there was the gas-for-gold scheme where Turkey helped Iran pocket some $12 billion in oil sales," said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). "This was followed up by revelations of sanctions busting on the part of Iranian businessmen in Turkey to the tune of €87 billion."

"There may be tension over the civil war in Syria. But there appears to be far more drawing these two neighbors together than driving them apart," Schanzer said. "This, of course, raises questions about Turkey's reliability as a U.S. ally and as a NATO ally—questions that FDD continues to raise as it investigates Turkey's illicit finance activity. This is activity that cannot be ignored. And this visit only punctuates our concerns."

Erdogan was in Tehran in January to meet with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, another sign of warming ties between the two one-time rivals.

Iranian parliament member Moayed Hosseini Sadr, who heads the country’s Iran-Turkey Parliamentary Friendship Group, expressed optimism about the trip Monday, saying that an increase in ties between Iran and Turkey "will be to the benefit of the entire region."