Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan arrived in Tehran Wednesday Jan. 29 to launch yet another grand foreign policy swivel. – again promising a “breakthrough.”
But this time, he needed an urgent shift for hauling his standing at home out of an all-time slump.
His low rating was reflected in the plunge of the Turkish lira Monday to a record low of $0.4185, part of the wider reverses of emerging-market currencies, but also thanks to worries about the uncertain political situation in Ankara.
Tuesday, Erdogan suddenly sounded more like his old self.
He convened a central bank extraordinary policy meeting to evaluate the slide and shoot a big gun for strengthening the currency. It raised the official interest from 4.5 to 10 percent. But this missed its aim to be more or less shrugged off by the financial markets. But the Turkish prime minister was meanwhile haring off to fire another gun: he laid out for his parliamentary party a grandiose new foreign policy roadmap that hinged on his forthcoming, groundbreaking visit to Tehran.
Erdogan conjured up before his audience the vision of a mighty new alliance of the two non-Arab Middle East powers towering over Arab Muslim Middle East affairs and history.
For starters, the two powers would scoop up the Syrian question and run with it. After all, he explained, the international community had shown nothing but “inaction” in the face of the Assad regime’s “brutality against civilians.”
Tehran visit marks end of Turkish-US cooperation for Syria
Ankara would persevere in its “humanitarian policies” on Syria, Erdogan pledged: “We’ll go on defending the rights of the oppressed, in the face of pressure and all-out sabotage,” he said, “We’ll continue to carry aid to the oppressed [in Syria], bearing our responsibility as a great country, notwithstanding treachery and acts of sabotage… Syria faces a heavy test. As brothers of Syria, we will put our stamp on history with a test of our will,” Erdogan declared.
It doesn’t take a political scientist to catch the Turkish prime minister’s drift. His pejorative darts were bitterly aimed at one target: the Obama administration in Washington.
Erdogan planned to take Turkey’s “stamp on history” into his own hands in his Tehran visit.
His meetings Wednesday and Thursday (Jan. 29-30) with Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani would mark the first step: the cut-off of Turkish cooperation on the Syrian question with the US and Western European governments.
Conjoined Turkish-Iranian policies would produce a stunning formula to fly past Washington, overtake the international Geneva 2 conference and end the Syrian war while keeping Bashar Assad in power – no doubt with Moscow’s quiet approval.
Erdogan’s henchmen have violated sanctions for years
Deeply anxious about the potential for fallout on nuclear diplomacy posed by Turkish prime minister’s rush into Iranian arms, Washington sent him a grave warning:
“What we are working towards is the possibility of a long-term, comprehensive resolution with the Iranians in which they demonstrate that their nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes,” said David Cohen, US Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.
“Iran is not open for business… Businesses interested in engaging in Iran really should hold off. The day may come when Iran is open for business, but the day is not today,” Cohen added.
This put Erdogan on notice that he risked an open breach with the Obama administration if he dared use his Tehran visit to sign a strategic-economic pact with Iran without heeding the US and European sanctions still in force against Iran.
However, this warning came well after the fact, in the light of the latest corruption scandal rocking Ankara. Exposed was a massive “gas-for-gold” sanctions-busting scheme involving high-level Turkish officials, including Erdogan’s family members and key Turkish businessmen, which put in Iran’s coffers around $13 billion in Turkish gold between 2012 and 2013.
Tehran is not averse to scoring against Washington
Tehran also has it in for Washington and Brussels over Syria:
1. Although Iran continues to turn a smiling face towards the West, the smile is half-frozen since the Obama administration blocked Tehran’s invitation to this week’s Geneve-2 conference on Syria. Last week, President Hassan Rouhani’s genial manner at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos was reserved.
And, according to DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources, Ayatollah Khamenei, President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would not be averse to going along with Erdogan’s plans – up to a point. Although Iran was admitted to the back door of Geneva-2, by being co-opted to the secret sessions taking place away from the world’s eyes in another Swiss city, Bern (see the lead article in this issue), its leaders took offense at being treated almost as Washington’s guilty secret, instead of being hailed at center stage.
They took this half snub as America’s retreat from the recognition conferred on Iran as a paramount Middle East power, as part of the understandings leading up to the conclusion of the interim nuclear accord last November.
(See DEBKA Weekly 619 of January 17: The Middle East Changes Hands: January 16, 2014 – The Day Iran Was Anointed Regional Power).
Erdogan can’t contain his fury with Washington
Tehran deduced from this episode that the Obama administration has no qualms about hedging on a major strategic deal with Iran – even in the early stages of implementation. Iran resolved to show Washington that it can’t achieve its goals in the Middle East without cutting the Shiite Republic in on the Syrian equation.
2. Erdogan is spitting mad over what he conceives as US conspiracies against him. He believes the Obama administration has been pulling strings to engineer his overthrow as Turkish prime minister in favor of President Abdullah Gul.
His henchmen also accuse the Obama administration, albeit not publicly, of the leaks that exposed the corruption scandals in Ankara: For years, sanctions-busting business deals with Iran went through the Turkish state-owned Halkbank used as the main channel for the clandestine financial and economic ties between Turkey and Iran.
In Erdogan’s circle of supporters, the White House is accused of having two motives for its alleged conspiracies:
a) To undermine and discredit the Turkish prime minister and his inner circle – personally and politically.
b) To torpedo any possible rapprochement between Tehran and Ankara.
Erdogan and Rouhani cook up Syria peace plan excluding US
Our sources report that the Erdogan administration turned to Tehran for an urgent resolution of the Syrian conflict that bypassed Washington after realizing that Bashar Assad was there to stay and that war would continue to flood Turkey with hordes of destitute Syrian refugees.
In secret meetings over the past month between their emissaries – with Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan making frequent trips to Iran – the following points were agreed:.
1. Tehran and Ankara would sabotage what they perceived as Washington’s plans to exploit Shiite-Sunni rivalries in the Middle East, by leading a new Shiite-Sunni bloc with its own policies for resolving regional disputes keeping America out. Moscow and Beijing were expected to climb aboard this new Middle East vehicle.
2. For starters, the alliance would offer an alternative solution for ending the Syrian war and leave Geneva-2 and its Western sponsors behind in the dust.
3. The Turkish-Iranian remedy would be built around the recruitment of all the Turkey-based segments of the Syrian opposition and leaders of the million Syrian refugees sheltering in Turkey for a huge effort to negotiate peace and reconciliation with the Assad regime.
Enlisting rebel leaders on the spot for fence-mending with Assad
The Americans and Europeans would be left stuck trying to hold together a bunch of fractious opposition factions living in exile – some outside the Middle East – while Turkey and Iran would focus on welding together the active Syrian rebel forces based on the Turkish-Syrian border – far from the international halls of diplomacy – and persuading them to embark on their first steps towards healing their feud with Bashar Assad. This process would aim to expunge US influence in the Syrian refugee community.
4. Tehran would reimburse Ankara for this service with first pick for Turkish companies before Western firms of lucrative contracts for work in Iran, just as soon as its markets were opened up by the relaxation of US and European sanctions.
As soon as the ban on Iranian oil exports is lifted, Tehran promises to revive the old idea of pipelines laid across Turkey to carry Iranian oil to European markets.
5. Ankara and Iran agreed to kept their pact secret, mainly because some of the action entailed flies in the face of the international accords Iran has signed for curbing its nuclear program and UN-mandated sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic.