It has been weeks since the falling out between the US and Turkey over the continued detention of pastor Andrew Brunson, a symptom of many problems between the two countries. Just to briefly recap, some of the other outstanding issues between the sides include Turkey’s anger at US support for Kurdish forces affiliated to the PKK in Syria; the violation of the Iran Sanctions Act by a Turkish state-owned bank, possibly with the full knowledge or even behest of the highest levels of the Turkish government; Turkey’s intent to purchase Russian S400 surface to air missiles; and the residence in the US of Fetullah Gulen who Ankara blames for the July 2016 attempted coup.
Despite the US sanctions which wreaked havoc on the already vulnerable Turkish economy, and the threat of more to come, Turkey is still resisting US pressure. All Ankara has to do is drop the charges against Brunson, so why is Ankara resisting so much? Why not find a face-saving measure and fall into line, just like Ankara did after tensions with Russia?
In an earlier post, I explained how Turkey and the US might overcome some of their differences. And if I can think of a way, I am sure the brilliant minds in Washington and Ankara can do better. I also wrote a post about the underlying symptoms for the breakdown of relations in which I factor Turkey’s internal security threats, Ankara’s delusions of grandeur and Turkey’s authoritarian turn. But there is an additional factor, namely, President Erdogan’s version of political Islam.
Faced with ongoing Magnitsky Act sanctions and high tariffs on aluminium and steel, as well as being excluded from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme after the passing of the 2019 defence spending bill, Turkey is experiencing a continued strain on its economy, an ongoing currency crisis and uncertainty about future military hardware. If President Erdogan truly cared about the Turkish economy, he would have appointed representatives from the business community to establish an economic advisory council, increased interest rates by guaranteeing the independence of the central bank, and, of course, immediately released American Pastor Andrew Brunson. Instead, Erdogan chose his son-in-law to be the country’s economy minister, maintained his position that high interest rates leads to inflation and pressured the central bank to reframe from raising rates. Not only did Erdogan not release Pastor Brunson, but he responded to US sanctions with some of his own, which practically amounts to a trade war against the biggest economy on Earth.
“They have their dollars but we have the Quran”, declared Erdogan, not just once but on countless occasions over the past couple of weeks. This is typical of religious fanatics everywhere; when they don’t have the answers, they double down on God. When asked about the dismal economic performance of the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, Ayatollah Khomeini responded that, “the revolution was not about the price of watermelons”. Indeed, how can it be when Khomeini promised that Islam was the solution? This is why Erdogan continues to resist increasing interest rates which he has described as “evil”, no doubt a reflection of Islam’s abhorrence to usury. If it is not proscribed by God, it cannot be part of the answer.
Erdogan adds that there is no need to fear, the world is bigger than the United States. Never mind the fact that the US accounts for 25 per cent of the world’s economy, Turkey, Erdogan insists, can turn to other countries for economic support and arms purchases. Qatar and Russia, or, in the case of F-35s, Turkey’s own military aviation industry (ignoring that the TF-X project, for example, is currently dependent on the expertise and intellectual property of UK firms).
It appears that President Erdogan and his sycophantic band of advisors believe the hype about America’s demise and the rise of the rest. But unlike serious observers who write about America’s inwardly looking trajectory and the rise of China and other developing nations, President Erdogan and his cohorts seem to think the time is nigh. They appear to have missed that for the time being at least, the US is still the most powerful nation on earth, and that remains the case whether we are talking about hard power, soft power, smart power or any other kind of power.
President Erdogan once commented that there is no such thing as moderate Islam. His foreign policy reflects this. President Erdogan’s government continues to support Hamas. It sides with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and sponsors a range of Islamist militants in Syria. Erdogan himself earned his political stripes with the openly Islamist Welfare Party of the one-time Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan who was anti-western to the core and talked about forming an Islamic currency and uniting the Muslim world against US and Zionist conspiracies. Although Erbakan was ousted following a military intervention, his thinking inspired a generation of Turkish Islamists, and President Erdogan was his (wayward) protégé who is beginning to act more and more like his old mentor. “The attack on our economy has absolutely no difference from attacks on our call to prayer and our flag,” Erdogan recently stated, showing his inability to separate religion from economics and international relations. Just last March, Yeni Safak, a pro-Erdogan newspaper and government mouthpiece if ever there was one, talked about creating an Islamic army of millions of soldiers to fight Israel. Erdogan didn’t distance himself from the piece. It also reflect the apparent statements of King Abdullah II of Jordan who told US congressional leaders back in 2016 that the Turkish head of state believes in a “radical Islamic solution” to conflicts in the Middle East.
Erdogan sees himself as the head of a country that leads the Muslim world. The most recent example was when President Erdogan used Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as a means to speak on behalf of the Muslim world by convening a special emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Erdogan used this pulpit to lead the Muslim world’s condemnation of the Trump Administration in the most visceral terms imaginable.
In this context, how can it be possible for Erdogan to back down against Trump? It be a setback for Erdogan’s attempt to lead the Muslim world legitimized by Turkey's Ottoman past, Islamic credentials and the Turkish president’s ability to stand up to Israel and America. Of course, the losers will be Turkey’s long-suffering population who are seeing their money devalued, their savings hurt and their businesses on the brink. But they needn’t worry, they always have God.
Last Monday, I had to make a difficult television viewing decision, either catch up on Homeland season 7 or watch Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu make a live appearance to make revelations about Iran’s nuclear programme? I chose the latter.
Bibi, as Netanyahu is known in Israel, is ever the showman. While delivering a Ted Talk style presentation, he announced to viewers that Israeli intelligence operatives managed to seize tens of thousands of top-secret Iranian documents from a previously unknown nuclear archive located in an unassuming neighbourhood in Tehran (wow!). A sprinkle of these documents was shown in Bibi’s presentation which the Israeli prime minister claimed was evidence that Iran’s top officials, from supreme leader to president and foreign minister, had lied to the international community when they insisted that Iran was not seeking a nuclear bomb.
This trove of information, argued Netanyahu, casts doubt on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which was concluded between Iran, the US, Russia, China and Europe in 2015 under the leadership of Barack Obama, the most fickle president in the history of US foreign policy until the election of Donald Trump, to reduce and monitor Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the easing of sanctions. In other words, save the Islamic Republic in return for a nuclear deal. President Trump along with a slew of conservative politicians, academics and commentators have termed the agreement a bad deal, a “terrible” deal or the “worst deal ever”. It now looks that they have a point.
Some commentators, eager to save the JCPOA, and by extension Obama’s legacy, insist that there is nothing particularly new in these seized documents. They say that it is all hyperbole, rehashed information and that the deal is still a good one. They add that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was already aware of Iran’s attempt to weaponise its nuclear programme, and the documents are dated before the signing of the 2015 JCPOA. Moreover, the IAEA, as well as Europe and the United States all confirmed that Iran has been in full compliance of the deal and, so far, none of the captured documents seems to have contradicted these assessments. Move along, there’s nothing to see here.
Not so fast. Why such faith in an autocratic regime which has incessantly lied to its people from Ayatollah Khomeini’s hijacking the 1979 revolution with his hidden plan to install a constitution based on his political interpretation of the Shia concept of the velayat-e faqih with himself as supreme leader, to the stealing of the 2009 elections and the perpetual corruption which led many across the country to protest the regime a few months ago? Why is it so hard to believe that the same clerical regime that murders, steals, plunders, executes, tortures and imprisons its own people also lied to the international community and broke agreements, pledges and declarations?
And yes indeed, there is actually something to this cache of documents. Consider the following:
It is true that the IAEA, the CIA and other agencies had their suspicions that Iran was actively seeking to weaponise its nuclear programme and was conducting research into the design and construction of a warhead capable of delivering a nuclear payload, but ceased this project in 2003. But throughout this period and continuously until this very day, Iran’s political leaders denied that there was ever such a programme. However, the IAEA and CIA’s suspicions are now facts. Not only do we now know that Iranian officials had been lying, but they were also negotiating in bad faith, including their declaration before the 2015 agreement that Iran would reveal the full extent of its past nuclear work. The documents show that they have done no such thing.
Furthermore, the existence of this nuclear archive seems to have been unknown to the international community. Iran did not declare its existence to the IAEA either before the 2015 nuclear deal or after. Nor did Iran hand over its research into making a nuclear bomb. Instead it hid it. This in itself is a breach of the spirit of the JCPOA and may even be a violation of Articles II and/or III of the Non Proliferation Treaty. If Iran is indeed in breach of the NPT, then the JCPOA as it currently stands is not worth the paper it’s printed on.
Finally, Bibi’s revelations create the very real suspicion that having negotiated the JCPOA in bad faith, Iran was essentially putting its nuclear weapon programme aside only to come back to it a later. Of course, defenders of the deal have countered that the P5+1 negotiated it with the assumption that Iran was lying, and in the words of President Obama it was based on “unprecedented verification”.
But when negotiating the deal, the international powers did not have such concrete proof that their Iranian interlocutors were brazenly lying. How can anyone now defend the laxity in regulating Iran’s ballistic missile programme or the JCPOA’s ridiculously naïve sunset clause which would allow Iran to enrich again after 15 years? No way Jose!
Although tougher than its critics like to admit, the flaws in the JCPOA are real. Obama did an excellent job in forming and executing a stringent sanctions regime which really crippled the Iranian economy and brought the regime to its knees. But the Obama administration underestimated just how successful it was. In 2012 and 2013 there were rumblings of protests in Iran’s major cities, alleviated with the 2013 election of President Rohani, a regime loyalist disguised as a reformer. While negotiating the deal, Iran was in a situation where it could not afford to be in Syria and Yemen, develop a nuclear programme and placate its restless population angered by corruption, inflation and unemployment. The very future of the regime was at stake. Obama and Kerry could have done better and should have done better
French and German heads of state have tried to convince Trump to fix not nix the deal and make additional supplementary agreements instead. These new documents give him leverage to do just that. He should take it.
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