Wayward policy toward Turkey a benefit to Iran

The past couple of weeks have found Turkey at the center of a lot of international news. First, there’s this week’s news—the deal with Iran that Turkey and Brazil helped broker, in which Tehran would ship half its stockpile of nuclear fuel to Ankara in exchange for fuel rods. It’s an interesting agreement that became much less relevant on Tuesday when the United States, Great Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany all agreed to pursue tougher sanctions against Iran—precisely the outcome Tehran had furiously been trying to avoid.

Then there’s the sex scandal that derailed the political career of the main opposition leader, Deniz Baykal, last week—which has also boosted the profile of the party’s new leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and injected some fascinating energy into the country’s politics. With Kılıçdaroğlu at the helm, the ruling Islamist-based government faces a real contender in the Republican People’s Party (CHP) for the first time in eight years.

On one hand, neither of these developments affects the United States much. With regard to the Iran deal, a prominent Turkish politician told me recently that the U.S. is deeply annoyed that Turkey successfully brokered some kind of deal with Iran, and would like to see the ruling AKP party lose the next election. He even suggested that American and Israeli intelligence services had a hand in exposing Baykal’s adulterous relationship as a way to get him out of the way and give the CHP a little more juice against the AKP. Now that this scandal has given the opposition an energetic new leader, there’s no guarantee that AKP will claim a sweeping victory next year; in other words, he said, Turkey’s efforts to mediate the Iran deal have drawn some additional American attention—and ire.

I don’t buy this argument—not that I know anything about the activities of the intelligence community, or even rule out the possibility for that matter. Anything is possible. But this conspiracy theory really doesn’t hold up well. Many Turks believe that the AKP came to power with American support, because the U.S. desperately needed to create moderate Muslim allies—which, conveniently, is a storyline that the Turkish media has held to for years. Whether or not it’s true, perception is reality, and changing the perception that the AKP has American backing will be nearly impossible. Any argument that would frame the support of the U.S. negatively should be regarded skeptically—having a decent relationship with the U.S. hardly means that Turkey is consorting with the enemy.

The situation really speaks to the irony of Turkey. One day, the country presents itself as a rock star in the region, playing a significant role in mediating the thorniest issues and gaining confidence in its own position. The next day, Turkey feels perilously vulnerable to foreign pressure and its own domestic problems. Then some forces resort to playing the victim, claiming that the U.S. and Israel are behind the scenes torpedoing their heroic efforts.