Neither AFP nor other outlets that have reported on the dispute have given much detail on its geopolitical context, but in any event it is reasonable to regard the incident as an example of consistently difficult relations between Iran and its actual or prospective trading partners, during the new period of economic activity following the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers.
The Turkmenistan dispute is a relatively minor one. But any newfound challenges to Iran’s international relations could have knock-on effects among Iran’s other wary partners, insofar as they could reinforce perceptions of Iranian belligerence or untrustworthiness. And of course, these perceptions are already promoted by non-economic matters including the increasingly visible Iranian interventions in regional conflicts beyond its borders.
This apparent imperialism has created serious political and diplomatic strain between Turkey and Iran, even at a time when the two countries appeared to be expanding economic relations and generally putting aside longstanding differences. On Wednesday, Reuters reported that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had made public statements criticizing Iran for standing in the way of the enforcement of a ceasefire that had been negotiated for Syria after the conquest of Aleppo by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Cavusoglu specifically noted that Iran-backed Shiite militias had violated that ceasefire and were clearly not being reined in by Tehran.
Turkey has long supported factions opposed to the Assad government and eventually joined a US-led coalition committed to fighting ISIL in Syria. But Turkey’s criticism of Iran now seemingly threatens the cooperation between Tehran and Moscow, which are pro-Assad allies in the Syrian Civil War. Despite their shared backing of Assad, the two foreign governments have frequently been described as having separate and sometimes adverse interests. The post-Aleppo ceasefire seems to have gone a long way toward highlighting these differences, as Iran is undermining a ceasefire that Russia helped to negotiate and has guaranteed to uphold.
If this situation does indeed diminish the partnership between Iran and Russia, it will not be the only recent loss of foreign clout for the Islamic Republic. On the other side of the world, Iran had reportedly enjoyed cooperative relations with Argentina under the government of former President Cristina Kirchner, in spite of the fact that Iran had been reliably implicated in a 1994 terrorist attack in Buenos Aires which killed 85 people. Near the end of Kirchner’s presidency, she became embroiled in scandal over accusations that her administration had helped to cover up Iran’s complicity in the attack, in order to retain favorable trade agreements involving Iranian oil and Argentine agricultural products.
Kirchner’s policy of cooperation with Iran ended immediately after her successor took over the presidency. But what’s more, Tablet reported on Wednesday that an Argentine appeals court had reopened the case against Kirchner over the alleged cover-up. The report also noted that a criminal investigation remained open regarding the apparent murder of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was found dead in his home the day before he was scheduled to present evidence of the conspiracy and the Iranian role in the bombing.
The continued pursuit of Kirchner over these issues seems to demonstrate not only a reversal but a repudiation of the policies that Tablet described as privileging economic relationships over justice. Such developments may have a psychological effect on a range of other countries who face a similar choice between these two priorities at a time when Iran has been freed from economic sanctions but is still engaging in many objectionable behaviors including regional interference, anti-Western rhetoric, and crackdowns against domestic activists and persons with connections to Western countries.
Human rights groups have accused those Western powers of focusing too narrowly on the preservation of the nuclear agreement and the pursuit of trade deals, thereby distracting attention away from human rights issues, including those affecting Western nationals. The tension between these priorities has arguably influenced the British response to the arrest last April of Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and to her subsequent five-year sentence on unspecified national security charges.
Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe has described her as a bargaining chip being used by extract economic concessions from the British government. He has also harshly criticized the UK for its consistent lack of action on the case. Zaghari-Ratcliffe attended a three-hour trial to appeal her sentence on Wednesday, according to the Evening Standard. But the report seems to imply dim prospects for a favorable outcome, considering that the trial remained shrouded in secrecy and was heavily attended by the hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Foreign pressure could theoretically help to counterbalance the organization’s influence, but this does not appear to be present in the case, other than in the form statements from human rights groups and Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s independent advocates. But the apparent reticence could still diminish if further dealings with Iran begin to appear untenable, unfavorable, or both.
To some extent, this appears to already be happening. One indicator of this is the decision by the UK oil giant BP to voluntarily withdraw from a list of companies pre-approved by the Iranian government for participation in new oil contracts. The decision was attributed primarily to concerns over more hawkish Western policies toward and barriers to trade with the Islamic Republic under the administration of incoming US President Donald Trump.