(Incirlik air base in eastern Turkey housing US warplanes and 50 nuclear bombs. File photo)
The Turkish state news agency Anadolu has featured an analysis titled US sanctions on Iran increasing public unease, which is highly critical of the Iranian ruling elite’s approach to the current standoff with the US. The thrust of the commentary is that the Iranian ruling elites are deliberately provoking a showdown with the US by spurning President Trump’s repeated offers for unconditional negotiations because Tehran harbours the notion that it can lethally damage his bid for a second term in the 2020 election by entangling the US in an asymmetrical war and creates a Middle Eastern quagmire for him. The sub-text of the commentary is that the newfound belligerence in Tehran is attributable to the Supreme Leader and is not in the interests of the Iranian nation.
The opinion piece comes at a time when Turkey is quietly pleased with President Trump’s pragmatism in accommodating its purchase of the S-400 ABM system from Russia. It reinforces the impression from Trump’s extraordinary remarks at the press conference in Osaka on June 29 on Turkish President Erdogan that some sort of a deal has been struck by the two leaders. Trump had gone out of the way to defend Erdogan’s decision on purchase of the S-400 missiles (because “he got treated very unfairly” by the Obama administration), which is “not really Erdogan’s fault”. Trump had said he’s “working on it (S-400 deal). We’ll see what we can do.”
Erdogan claimed later that Trump told him at their meeting in Osaka that the US will not impose sanctions against Turkey on account of the S-400 deal with Russia. Meanwhile, the actual delivery of the S-400 system in Turkey is expected next week. (Erdogan had also said recently that a visit by Trump to Turkey in July “is being talked about”.)
Some sort of an understanding between Trump and Erdogan with regard to Iran cannot be ruled out. Of course, Turkey is in a position to render invaluable help to Iran to bust the US sanctions (which it actually did in the past under the infamous oil-for-gold deal between Turkish and Iranian business elites during the Obama presidency.) Trump would know that if Turkey denies “strategic depth” to Iran, it can be a game changer for the “maximum pressure” strategy against Tehran.
Significantly, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is also due to visit the US to meet Trump on July 22. Turkey and Pakistan aren’t exactly comparable but there are common elements here. Turkey is an estranged NATO ally which is open to reconciliation, whereas Pakistan is keenly seeking the resuscitation of its moribund strategic ties with the US.
The bottom line is that the US stands to gain out of “win-win” cooperation with both these Cold War allies over the vexed Iran problem.
Turkey’s cooperation is vital for the US to plug Iran’s land route to Syria’s ports in eastern Mediterranean and the US bases in eastern Turkey are key intelligence outposts eavesdropping on Iran. Similarly, the US hopes to keep a “very large” intelligence presence in the Afghan bases, which requires Pakistan’s acquiescence. Certainly, these US intelligence assets are not merely focused on the terrorism problem but also target Russia, China and Iran. In sum, the US intelligence assets in Turkey and Pakistan will play a crucial role in any military confrontation with Iran.
Fundamentally, in regard of both Turkey and Pakistan, their estrangement as allies happened due to the US’ flawed policies that failed to adequately accommodate their legitimate interests. In both cases, the degradation of the relationships and the ensuing nosedive took place under President Obama. The alienation of Turkey when the Obama administration began soft-pedalling on the regime project in Syria in 2012 and it exacerbated following the failed coup attempt in 2016 to overthrow Erdogan.
In the case of Pakistan also, that watershed moment was reached in 2011 when a series of incidents took place that rocked the US-Pakistan ties — the detention of ex-CIA employee Raymond Allen Davis in Lahore in January that year, the Abbottabad operation to kill Osama bin Laden in May and the slaughter of 28 Pakistani troops at two Pakistani border posts in Mohmand tribal agency by NATO Apache helicopters, an AC-130 gunship and fighter jets in November.)
Unsurprisingly, Trump didn’t say at the press conference in Osaka as to what Erdogan’s side of the bargain might be. But the Anadolu commentary hints that Turkey won’t erode the US’ “maximum pressure” on Iran. Turkey has closed its ports to Iranian oil, fully complying with US sanctions against its main supplier — although Erdogan had previously slammed the sanctions, saying they are destabilising for the region. Prior to May 2018, when the US pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord, Turkey imported an average of 912,000 tonnes of oil a month from Iran, or 47% of its total imports.
Again, last Tuesday, the US put the Baluchistan Liberation Army on its global terrorist watchlist and on Thursday, Islamabad made the formal announcement on Imran Khan’s visit to the US. Pakistan comes under the US Central Command theatre of operations. (So does Iran.) Currently, there are no US bases in Pakistan.
(On 11th December, 2011, American flag was lowered at the strategically key Shamsi air base in Balochistan, about 100 miles from Iran’s border, which was used by CIA and US Air Force for surveillance and drone operations)
But Pakistan, like Turkey, also has a long history of hosting American military bases. In Baluchistan alone, there were several US drone bases — Shamsi Airfield, shrouded in secrecy, which exclusively used to conduct drone operations and housed US military personnel; PAF base on the Sindh-Baluchistan border, which was also used for CIA drone operations; Pasni Airport where US spy planes used to be based, and so on.