U.S. policy on the Middle East

The imperial reflex

The United States believes it can enforce the policy of sanctions it has directed against Iran on the rest of the world as well. In no third country are the possible implications as grave as in Turkey, says Stefan Buchen in his analysis

Learning of the politically charged criminal proceedings before a New York court surely came as no surprise to German readers. The article said that charges had been brought against a Turkish bank manager. An industrious gold dealer who had also originally been indicted had pled guilty and then turned state's evidence.

The reason usually proffered for why this particular criminal case is so politically fraught is that it is about corruption in Erdogan's administration. Ministers, cronies and the family of the Turkish president are suspected of making money from the shady business dealings. And because the purchase of billions of dollars' worth of oil and gas is at stake here, the "commissions" represented a windfall of several million for each individual involved. "Erdogan under pressure" is the headline often seen in Germany in reaction to the machinations uncovered by the American justice system.

Nor did Recep Tayyip Erdogan's vehement response go unnoticed. He denounced the American lawsuit as "a plot against Turkey." Washington was "conspiring" with the Gulen movement against the Turkish government and the country as a whole. His statements were widely interpreted as merely the typical posturing of a dictator. Whenever an authoritarian ruler's own errors are uncovered, he naturally tries to rally his people behind him by representing the case as a malicious attack from abroad.

But as interesting and accurate as the revelations about self-enrichment in Erdogan's system are and though we may find his heavy-handed attempts to brush them off quite entertaining, media reports of this sort miss the real heart of the story.

The true crux is the political drama that is unfolding here. More specifically, this story represents the United States' efforts to impose economic sanctions on its enemy Iran, with all of the unintended consequences this policy could have.

An Iranian-Turkish network

The facts in brief: In January 2013, a plane from Ghana lands at the airport in Istanbul. Turkish customs officials find gold on board. The corresponding paperwork raises the question of whether the cargo is legal. Turkish investigators take up the case. They uncover a network of Turkish and Iranian businessmen, companies, banks and politicians.

The Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab during his arrest at the airport in Istanbul on 17 December 2013 (photo: picture-alliance/AAA)
A turning point in Turkish history: on 17 December 2013, the Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab was arrested at the airport in Istanbul. Many of the police officers and public prosecutors involved in the investigation are supporters of the Gulen movement. These law enforcement officers now accuse Erdogan and his associates of corruption because they allegedly took a personal cut of these transactions. Erdogan sees this as an attack on his power. He puts a stop to the investigations

The spider at the centre of the web is the gold dealer Reza Zarrab from Tabriz in north-western Iran. In that historic trade hub, many people speak both Persian as Turkish, just like the 29-year-old Zarrab. He has created a complex system of exchange. Turkey paid for oil and gas supplied by Iran with pure gold and Zarrab's couriers then carried the gold bars over the border to Iran. Regular money transfers to Iran have been impossible since 2011, because the sanctions imposed by the United States cut off Iranian banks from international transactions.

The Turkish investigators take action on 17 December 2013, arresting Zarrab and further suspects. In the meantime, it is clear that this day marks a turning point in Turkish history. Many of the police officers and public prosecutors involved in the investigation are supporters of the Gulen movement.

These law enforcement officers now accuse Erdogan and his associates of corruption because they allegedly took a personal cut of these transactions. Erdogan sees this as an attack on his power. He puts a stop to the investigations. The accused are released, including Zarrab, who promptly resumes operations. By contrast, the police and prosecutors are now sitting in prison, unless they have fled abroad.

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