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.
Regardless of the Tehran deal’s substance, Turkey apparently really did play the role of mediator, not central player. “This is not about Turkey or Brazil; this is about Iran,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley reminded everyone. It’s incredibly tough to try to build any kind of diplomatic bridge between the U.S. and Iran—or even to build confidence that one would happen. And no one has any solution to keep Iran from building or obtaining nuclear weapons. Statements by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressing his genuine belief that Iran does not intend to build a bomb doesn’t exactly help his credibility with the Americans. Nor does his obsession with Israel’s position in the region. Israel may be the country most threatened by the possibility of Iran having nuclear weapons, but it’s not the only country threatened by the prospect.
Yet the emotional reaction of Turkey’s leaders to the sanctions resolution by the United Nations Security Council raises a significant concern. There is a new blame game going around. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu furiously complained the other day that “if the U.S. had other requests, they should have told it in advance.” Crowley, however, flatly denies any accusation that the U.S. was not forthcoming enough in laying out what its expectations were concerning this mediation effort. In fact, a U.S. official who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue told me that “it is simply not true that Turks met all requests we asked.” In short, this moment in time may stand as the beginning of a new crisis in the U.S.-Turkey relationship. And it would be a grave mistake for the Security Council to further separate countries like Turkey and Brazil from the heavyweights of the Western world, and give them the message that they have no say in global peace and security. Iranians will surely celebrate such side benefits!
Turkey’s domestic politics are never dull. The Baykal sex tape was allegedly created secretly—a crime that should be dealt with through due process. But claiming that the AKP should have more popular support as a way to defend the country’s independence and sovereignty in the face of American annoyance is absolute nonsense. It’s time for Turkey to prove that its democracy works—and its leaders owe the citizens a civilized election campaign to show that it does.
Based in Washington, D.C., Tülin Daloglu is a Turkish-born journalist.