By Charles Recknagel,
A Turkish police investigation into an alleged multimillion-dollar
gold-buying scheme involving Iran is creating a major political crisis for Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has had a trying year.
The complicated affair has seen Erdogan this week accuse police officials of
launching a "dirty operation" against his government as they have targeted the
sons of three cabinet members along with some 80 other businesspeople and
bureaucrats in the bribery and fraud investigation.
At the same time, Erdogan has hinted that those who launched the investigation
belong to an organization seeking to tarnish his government and "become a state
within a state."
Erdogan has not named the organization but used references that make it clear to
Turkish listeners that he is accusing the followers of Fethullah Gulen, an
influential Muslim cleric who lives in the United States.
Barcin Yinanc, who reports on politics for "Hurriyet Daily News" in Istanbul,
says that "this is not the first time" that Erdogan has accused Gulen's
followers -- who have acquired influential positions within the judiciary and
police force -- of having their own agenda.
'Clean Hands' Dirtied
The battle over the corruption investigation pits police investigators and some
prosecutors directly against members of Erdogan's inner circle of ministers.
As the investigators have searched the homes of suspects, they have leaked to
the press details of what they find. Some of the most sensational reported
discoveries were shoe boxes stuffed with $4.5 million in cash in the home of the
chief executive of state-run Halkbank and a money-counting machine and piles of
cash in the bedroom of one government minister's son.
Press reports say that the investigation focuses on corruption related to
payments by Turkey for imported Iranian oil and natural gas being converted from
cash into gold that is delivered to Iran via Dubai.
Who within the Turkish government might be involved in the money laundering and
whether the Iranian government is also involved is not known, but a key suspect
in the corruption case is an Iranian businessman in Turkey, Reza Zarrab, who is
married to a Turkish pop star and who has extensive contacts in both countries.
Turkey imports Iranian energy resources despite international sanctions on Iran
because it says it needs the oil and gas for its economy. Ankara officially pays
for the imports with Turkish lira, since sanctions prevent it from paying in
dollars or euros. However, news reports say that Iranians are then using those
lira, held in Halkbank accounts, to buy gold in Turkey, and couriers then carry
bullion worth millions of dollars in hand luggage to Dubai, where it can be sold
for foreign currency or shipped to Iran.
The case has implications beyond Turkey and Iran because U.S. officials have
sought to prevent Turkish gold exports from providing a financial lifeline to
Tehran, which has been largely frozen out of the global banking system by
Western sanctions over its nuclear program. The gold-buying scheme also would
contravene U.S. sanctions on Tehran that forbid the export of precious metals to
In response to the widening scandal, the government has hit back hard by
removing six senior police officials from their jobs, including Istanbul police
chief Huseyin Capkin on December 19. Erdogan has also announced he will
personally appoint two prosecutors to help oversee the investigation, creating
press speculation that may seek to suppress it altogether.
Fethullah Gulen (left) and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were once
The corruption investigation is proving particularly embarrassing to Erdogan
because his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2003 with a
"clean hands" campaign that was widely embraced by voters. The current
investigation is the first on such a scale to challenge that image and comes
just months before Turkey's local and presidential elections next year.
Yinanc says that the battle over the investigation now signals a definitive
break between Erdogan loyalists and the followers of Gulen, who originally
cooperated to help bring the religiously conservative AKP to power.
"The two joined forces in the past to fight the common enemy, which was the old
order based on the staunchly Kemalist and secularist military and judicial
elite," Yinanc says. "Now, the two have started to fight over governance style.
So, basically it is about the sharing of power and who is going to have a say
over certain issues."
Both Gulen's followers and Erdogan's loyalists share a political agenda based on
Islamic and pro-business values. But while Erdogan dominates the AKP party,
Gulen's followers are devotees of the cleric's teachings and view themselves as
Some of Gulen's teachings directly clash with Erdogan's current policies. While
Gulen urges Muslims to conduct interfaith dialogue with the "People of the Book"
-- that is, Jews and Christians -- Turkey's once warm relations with Israel have
chilled under Erdogan's administration. At the same time, Erdogan's government
has tried to shut down private test-preparation centers in Turkey, which the
Gulen movement uses to recruit new members and raise finances.
Gulen has lived in the United States since 1999, after leaving Turkey to seek
medical treatment. His departure came as it was widely anticipated he would soon
be tried in Turkey for seeming to encourage his followers to await a favorable
moment to transform the country into an Islamic state.
The crisis over the corruption investigation, and apparent showdown with Gulen's
followers, is the latest in a series of challenges Erdogan has faced this year.
James Ker-Lindsay, a Turkey expert at the London School of Economics and
Political Science, says first secularists and now members of Erdogan's own
Islamic constituency are challenging him over what they see as his authoritarian
"The secularist demonstrations which took place in late May [and through] June
were very much against what was perceived to be a very autocratic, growing
Islamist tendency from Erdogan. What we are seeing at the moment is something
which comes from a more religious angle," Ker-Lindsay says. "So, it is others
who have a more Islamic outlook who are also very worried about the way that
Erdogan is going."
Erdogan's commanding style has been much on display this week as he has dubbed
the corruption investigation an abuse of power. His tough counterattack echoes a
strategy he has already successfully used to send top generals to jail on
charges of plotting coups, pushing the military out of politics.
Whether the same strategy will work again or whether the corruption
investigation will prove too big to suppress will be the question preoccupying
Turkey for weeks ahead. The final answer will only come when Turks head to the
polls next year.
Copyright (c) 2013 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
... Payvand News - 12/20/13 ... --