Amidst the discussion of sanctions on Iran, an interesting fact, which we first noted on 5 March. According to the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB), foreign companies financed by Iran in 2011 totaled 590, an increase of 41% compared to the previous year. With Tehran using these front companies to bypass the sanctions, could Ankara be enjoying its economic development while agreeing to open its territory to NATO's early warning radar system and to cut its oil imports from Iran by 10%?
Now, an addition to the story. Turkey's Statistics Institute reported last month that gold exports to Iran rose in March to nine metric tonnes, worth $480 million, compared to 286 kg a year earlier and only 30 kg in February 2012. The export soared again in April to $1.2 billion, more than 26 tons.
The main opposition of the Republican People's Party (CHP) has asked the government for an explanation. So far, there has been no answer.
On the Turkish side, the gold sale might ease the current account deficit. While this was more than $16 billion by the end of the first quarter of 2012, that figure was $5.5 billion less than the same period in 2011.
Even if the exports were technically through private Turkish companies, they cannot occur without the notice of the Government. The Istanbul Gold Exchange estimates that Ankara has nearly 5,000 tons of gold, worth $265 billion, both as a guarantee to be used against another unexpected wave of global crisis and as an investment to be traded. While Greeks are coming to Turkey to turn their under-the-pillow gold into cash, Iranians seek golds to protect the value of their assets amidst the falling Iranian currency and the deepening sanctions on oil.
But how does this sit alongside the Turkish relationship with the US?
For Ankara, the relative autonomy of the country is crucial, especially when the regional balances supporting its "zero problems with neighbours" approach has been destroyed. So the gold sale has a political dimension beyond its economic effects. Turkey wants to become the regional centre, amidst instability. While Ankara is reducing its dependence on Iran by cutting its import of Iranian oil, Tehran finds itself more reliant on Turkey because of the gold supply.
And Washington may be able to live with that. Ankara's economic ties with Iran might be turned into political binds on regional issues. Turkey can seek to limit any Iranian moves on Iraq and Syria. At the same time, it provides an alternative to the reduction of every situation to "Iran v. Israel". That may not release the pressure for an Israeli strike on Tehran, but it is an additional factor both to hold back West Jerusalem and to return attention, at some point, to the need for a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
So Turkey's golden approach to Iran offers the silver lining to Washington of buying time while sanctions are applied on other fronts. And Ankara reaps the benefit, beyond its gold, of a revised application of its soft power in the Middle East.