A new customs gate in the Saray district of Turkey's Van province is expected to boost trade with Iran, according to Turkish media. It is one of several links Tehran is hoping to use to maintain its economy amid US sanctions and following the US-backed summit in Poland that Washington hoped would focus on Iran.
Tehran is now pushing for more trade with Iraq and Russia, and boasting it will not be affected by the sanctions.
Iran said on Saturday it had many options to neutralize the reimposition of the sanctions on its oil exports, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported, adding that Tehran's clerical rulers had no plans to hold talks with Washington.
"Apart from closing the Strait of Hormuz, we have other options to stop oil flow if threatened... The US administration lacks 'goodwill,' no need to hold talks with America," Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani told Tasnim. "Iran has plans in place that will neutralize the illegal US sanctions against Iran's oil exports."
On Friday, the Islamic Republic News Agency included an article about Russia's efforts to confront the US regarding trade and Iran.
"Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Friday that Moscow will continue all-out cooperation with Iran, including in the area of nuclear energy, despite all the pressures from the United States," the article notes. Russia said that US efforts to "scare" Moscow regarding trade were unacceptable.
RUSSIA HAS been outspoken before on standing by Iran during the dispute with the US. In late January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met Iraq's Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim in Moscow to discuss "the situation around Iran in the context of increasing sanctions pressure and harsh rhetoric from the US," according to statements from Moscow.
They hinted that this affects Iraq's interests. Iraq is increasingly a kind of "near abroad" for Iran's economy, a key ally amid the increasing pressure from Washington. Iran has cultivated leaders in Iraq, including various Shi'ite-based political parties and also militias. Oil from Iraq is trucked to Iran and products from Iran go into Iraq.
For instance, on February 14 the Kurdistan Regional Government, an autonomous region in northern Iraq, issued a ban on oil exports to Iran. The ban appeared to be the result of pressure from the US, which doesn't want the trade to continue. But a week after it was announced, Iran sent Ambassador Iraj Masjedi to Iraq and the Kurdistan region.
Soon after, two exemptions to the oil ban were released. On the one hand, Baghdad has discussed the trade with Washington, but on the other hand, Baghdad wants the exemptions.
Iran's work with Iraq, Turkey and Russia is key to helping it get around the US sanctions and also keep its struggling economy afloat. Turkey had vowed it would not abide by new US sanctions in November. Turkey has also been in close talks with the Trump administration about Syria recently.
Turkey, Iran and Russia are also key players in the Astana process regarding ending the conflict in Syria. As part of that cooperation, Iran seeks to portray itself as advancing regional stability. Keeping Iran's economy afloat is part of that stability, from Tehran's perspective, and it seeks to convince its partners in Moscow and Ankara of this.
According to an article from the Atlantic Council on February 22, Iran is increasing its economic activities in Syria as the war winds down. It is shifting from sending aid to Syria, which was key to helping the Assad regime survive the civil war, to seeking economic benefit. Hamidreza Azizi argues that Tehran has signed a number of Memorandums of Understanding with Damascus as part of this effort.
This includes banking channels, agriculture, and other methods of "circumventing US sanctions." Iran also wants to be involved in post-war reconstruction, "with economic benefit outweighing political considerations." For the first time, Iran is also encouraging private sector investment, the article notes. A rail link, via Iraq, may even be in the works.
The Syrian nexus for the Iranian economy thus ties Iran, Iraq and Syria increasingly together. This is part of a political corridor of influence stretching to Lebanon, as well as a way for Iran's economy to access neighboring states. Along with the closer relations Iran seeks with Russia and Turkey as part of the discussions about post-war Syria, the economic issue is of vital importance for Tehran. These recent reports clearly indicate that this is the case.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.