Analysis |

Erdogan Is Worried, Iran Sees an Opportunity: The Middle East Nervously Watches Ukraine

Russia’s treatment of its neighbor Ukraine shows what can happen if you're dependent on one main energy supplier. Middle Eastern countries will become bigger natural gas partners

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in  Kyiv last wee
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv last week.Credit: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wasn’t bothered by this week’s movement of six Russian warships from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles Strait. Despite this show of force, Erdogan remains convinced that Russia’s threat to invade Ukraine won’t be carried out – or at least that's what he says in public. It’s unlikely he has any secret information or received any commitment at his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this month.

At that meeting, Erdogan had hoped to win the status of a mediator between Russia on one side and Ukraine and the United States on the other, letting him portray himself as the leader who saved the world from World War III. But he’s not exactly the person Putin or Joe Biden are pinning their hopes on; both presidents prefer direct dialogue. Meanwhile, each is considering the length of the limb his rival has gone out on.

Washington is sending more soldiers and weapons to Ukraine’s neighbors. More than 100,000 Russian soldiers are deployed on Ukraine’s eastern border, while Russian warships cruise the Black Sea as part of what Kremlin spokespeople call preplanned drills.

The warnings from Washington and European capitals that the United States will impose sanctions on Russia, especially on the Russian pipeline that provides some 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas, haven’t convinced Moscow to withdraw its forces or offer a compromise. The Americans’ working assumption, at least publicly, is that Putin plans to invade Ukraine, topple Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government, install a pro-Russian president and make the entire country, rather than just the east, part of the Russian commonwealth.

Ukrainian soldiers in eastern Ukraine on Thursday.Credit: Sergey Bobok/AFP

Ostensibly, this is a Russian-American-European confrontation that leaves the Middle East comfortably uninvolved. But at a time when Biden is asking Qatar for help if Russian gas shipments to Europe are halted, Egypt and Israel are worried about their wheat imports from Ukraine, Iran is considering the window of opportunity the crisis opens for it, and Turkey is examining its options – each of which threatens its economy and position in the region – it’s once again clear that Mideast countries can’t suffice with watching faraway conflicts through opera glasses.

What Erdogan seems to fear more than war in Ukraine is U.S. sanctions on Russia that would force him to take sides. After returning empty-handed from Kyiv, Erdogan once again finds himself trapped in a thicket where any incautious move will catch him by the throat.

Turkey’s economy is closely bound to Russia’s. These ties include hundreds of Turkish companies operating in Russia, the billions spent by Russian tourists at Turkish vacation spots, cooperation in the war in Syria (albeit with plenty of ups and downs) and Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 antimissile systems. They culminate in a gas pipeline that looks on the map like a dense web of veins through which Russia sends gas to Turkey and on to Europe.

In 2015, Turkey suffered a Russian boycott that nearly destroyed its tourism industry after it downed a Russian fighter plane that flew into its airspace. Putin responded by ordering Russians not to vacation in Turkey. He also shut down Turkish companies and almost completely halted traffic between the two countries. After eight long months of this boycott, Erdogan was forced to sign a cooperation agreement with Putin in the summer of 2016.

A big role for the Bosporus again

What’s at stake now is the operation of the TurkStream 2 gas pipeline, which runs directly from Russia under the Black Sea, bypassing Ukraine. It’s also slated to eventually send gas to Romania and Hungary, and Turkey’s expected revenues from transit fees are enormous. Even more important, this will make Turkey a major gas exporter to Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan at a ceremony celebrating construction of the TurkStream 2 gas pipeline in Istanbul in 2018.Credit: Pool Presidential Press Service

This project has been opposed by both the European Union and the United States, because it gives Russia a strategic foothold and expands its share of Europe’s gas market as the EU seeks to diversify its energy sources and reduce its dependence on Russia.

When Biden, in an effort to deter Russia from invading Ukraine, recently threatened to impose sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline – which runs directly from Russia to Europe under the Baltic Sea, also bypassing Ukraine – he mentioned TurkStream as a target for sanctions as well. Congress has already approved the sanctions, but Biden froze them last May to try to negotiate a diplomatic solution with Russia.

The Russian-Turkish pipeline isn’t the only project threatened by possible Turkish support for Russia. Ankara is enthusiastically building the Istanbul Canal, which will connect the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and serve as a strait parallel to the Bosporus.

A Russian warship crossing the Bosporus this week.Credit: Ozan Kose/AFP

Turkey has announced that the new canal won’t be subject to the 1936 convention that governs passage through the Dardanelles and Bosporus – and gives Turkey control over the straits. It also sets limits for the tonnage and size of ships allowed through, and was designed to guarantee free passage for civilian ships in times of peace.

But the convention also grants Turkey the authority to prevent the passage of warships and commercial vessels of countries that Ankara is at war with. Russia fears that the Istanbul Canal will become a military passage for NATO, while the United States is worried that the Turks will let Russian warships reach the Mediterranean through the new canal. Turkey has promised both Moscow and Washington that it won’t let the canal be turned into a war zone; it sees the passage as a source of enormous revenues – about $8 billion a year.

Turkey is already selling land and rights, and an investment framework has been released in which Turkish businesspeople are taking a part including Erdogan’s son-in-law, as are companies from Qatar. U.S. sanctions on the canal could wind up punishing out foreign companies taking part in the project. Turkish investments in the project would become worthless.

Qatar will help Biden

In contrast to Turkey’s fears, Iran views the Ukraine crisis as an opportunity, even if not an immediate one, to be an additional source of natural gas for Europe. The discovery of the huge Chalous natural field in the Caspian Sea could make Iran the world’s largest gas producer if and when the nuclear sanctions are lifted. The idea of Iran as a major natural gas supplier to Europe came in the wake of the 2015 nuclear agreement, but this possibility vanished after the United States withdrew from the deal in 2018.

Tehran announced last month that Iran could supply at least 20 percent of Europe’s gas needs. But this is only theoretical for now, and not just because of the sanctions. Iran's efforts at producing natural gas and building pipelines, or facilities for producing liquefied natural gas, are expected to take a long time. Still, even if Russia doesn't invade Ukraine, the threat that it almost did will serve as a catalyst to include Iran as a top gas supplier to Europe.

One country that can already take advantage of the crisis is Qatar, which is sitting on the world’s largest natural gas reservoir – where Iran is its partner. Qatar’s ruler promised Biden he would help Europe if the Russians turned off the natural gas. But Qatar is already committed to long-term contracts with East Asia, and it's not clear how much of its liquefied natural gas is available for Europe.

Qatar won an important diplomatic victory when at the end of January Biden declared it a “major non-NATO ally” – a status that only 18 countries have today, and hitherto only two in the Persian Gulf: Kuwait and Bahrain. This will give Qatar access to American technology, a significant easing of the restrictions on arms purchases and preferential status in the Gulf.

It seems the economic cooperation and close diplomatic ties with Iran didn’t exactly interfere with the Biden administration's embracing of Qatar, the site of the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East.

European countries and the United States are seeking alternatives to Russian gas to reduce Putin's leverage over the European economy. But this race – which for now is focusing on short-term solutions – requires a new global natural gas strategy, at least until the world ramps up renewable energy in earnest.

The question isn't just who can immediately provide a few million more tons of gas a day to heat Europe in the winter. It's also how to diversify the gas sources so that no group of countries has excessive power, even if the existence of this group erodes Russia’s power.

The oil crisis of the 1970s may be a distant memory, but a gas boycott, as Russia taught Ukraine and may now be teaching Europe, requires making Middle Eastern countries partners of the big powers.

All told, the Russians' treatment of Ukraine is an excellent example of what can happen if you're dependent on one main energy supplier. A lower-profile example – but no less threatening – involves China; its long-term agreement with Iran guarantees it first rights and preferred pricing.

China's gas agreements with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, along with its 15-year contract with Qatar to receive 3.5 million tons of gas annually, reflect the competition expected in the coming years. The big powers' close relations with the countries that control these resources will be vital.

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