Turkey already plays a role in a Mideast war
For Turkey, the Iran-Iraq war means handsome profits. Since the outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq in 1980, Turkish trucks and roads have played an increasing role in supplying the two belligerents with critical imports. Today, cut off from many of their normal import routes, both countries depend on Turkey's roads to support their war efforts and maintain their civilian economies.
And this assistance generates important hard currency for Turkey.
The new engines of war are not tanks but, more prosaically, long columns of heavily laden diesel trucks snaking eastward across Turkey into Iran and Iraq. Most start from Turkey's Mediterranean ports of Mersin and Iskenderun, or from new facilities on the Black Sea such as Samsun, which was recently modernized and expanded. Some shipments, particularly competing Bulgarian carriers, originate in Europe to avoid transshipment at Turkish ports.
Iraq's only ports, Basrah and Al Faw, were damaged by Iranian attacks early in the war and are still beleaguered by Iranian troops. Similarly, Iran's largest ports, Bandar-e-Shahpur and Khorramshahr, suffered considerable bomb damage and are still within range of Iraqi air attacks. The Turkish transit traffic has offset a large part of both countries' lost port capacity.
The trucks bound for Tehran cross into Iran at Dogubayazit, just north of the still-rebellious Kurdish territories. Those for Iraq cannot use the direct desert road across Syria, but are forced to skirt the Syrian-Turkish border, following the improved but still tortuous road to Cizre and then into Iraq at Zakho, deep in Iraqi Kurdish territory.
The cargoes are reportedly exclusively civilian, but vitally necessary for the war-racked economies of both countries. At least 3 million tons were carried last year across the Iraqi-Turkish border, and possibly as much into Iran, including tractors, automobiles, pharmaceuticals, Turkish grain and tobacco, machinery, and textiles.
Both Iran and Iraq clearly resent the logistic support rendered by Turkey to the enemy, but the transit trade is unimpaired. Each combatant is too dependent on Turkey to risk interference or threaten sanctions; each has expedited the traffic, trying to reduce the border snarls which previously had delayed shipments.
Rates range from $60 to $100 per ton, but trucks, not trains, still dominate the trade. The railroad to Baghdad from Turkey crosses a small wedge of Syrian territory near Nusayibin and has been inoperative for at least a year. The railroad to Iran is also not operational because of poor maintenance, poor management, cargo damage or loss, and, reportedly, occasional "difficulties" in Iranian Kurdistan.
Turkey's revenues from the transit trade are estimated at $500 million per year, including port charges, road tolls, and freight fees. These revenues are important to offset Turkey's stagnant exports to Europe.
Turkey is particularly important for Iraq, since Syria, feuding with the rival Baath Socialist Party in Baghdad, has compounded Iraq's logistic disabilities in two ways. First, it has blocked two of Iraq's land transport routes: the railroad from Europe via Ankara (the former Berlin-Baghdad route), and the direct routes to Baghdad from the eastern Mediterranean ports. Second, Syria shut off the main oil export pipeline for Iraq's northern fields.
Turkey therefore is vital for Iraq's export trade, as well as for imports. Iraq's only oil exports and sole source of income reach market via the Iraq-Turkish pipeline.
The line now carries some 800,000 barrels per day, or one-fourth of the prewar total, and is Iraq's economic lifeline. No other oil outlet remains, since the older pipeline in northern Iraq to the Mediterranean traverses Syria, and has been closed for some years, while Iran has blocked any oil exports from the south.