Jerusalem announcement heaven-sent for Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have all the luck. However embattled he might be, Erdogan steamrolls through.
This is what appears to have happened with the gold-for-oil case that had Turkish-Iranian trader Reza Zarrab testifying in US District Court in New York. For a while, it seemed as if Erdogan would have a very difficult time as Zarrab revealed key details of the billion-dollar scheme to smuggle gold for oil in violation of US sanctions on Iran. US prosecutors say the scheme exposes an organised crime ring that involves a former member of Erdogan’s cabinet and several Turkish bureaucrats.
Erdogan cast a long shadow on the case. In the latest phase of the trial, Zarrab implicated Erdogan, saying that he had ordered the scheme.
Even this extraordinary news from a US courtroom doesn’t seem to have affected Erdogan’s run of luck. Turkey’s harried and submissive media are repeating the narrative that the nation is under attack. Erdogan is in control of the domestic debate.
Internationally, he has been under increasing scrutiny and ramped up the nationalist rhetoric in response. US President Donald Trump, however, has unwittingly come to the rescue.
Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital couldn’t have come at a better moment for Erdogan. Just hours before Trump’s declaration, Jordanian King Abdullah II was in Ankara for talks, despite sharp differences between King Abdullah and Erdogan over the Syrian crisis.
“Any misstep regarding Jerusalem would cause new tensions in our region,” Erdogan declared after the meeting, conscious perhaps that the spotlight had moved from the Zarrab hearings.
Erdogan is a master reader of his people’s moods. He knows that anti-Semitism and anti- Americanism unite large swaths of Turkish conservative and left-leaning opinion. Before the Zarrab trial, Erdogan found elements of the far-left lining up to endorse his anti-American imperialism argument.
Trump’s Jerusalem decision is more significant by far. Until June 2016, Erdogan had used the 7-year-old rift between Israel and Turkey to appeal to the Justice and Development Party’s pious supporters. Israel’s newly emboldened position, courtesy of the United States, offers Erdogan a way to argue that cosying up to Iran and Russia and drifting ever so slightly away from Western alliances is the right course. It is a given that he will proclaim ever more loudly that he chose the correct path for Turkey.
International events are favourably aligned for Erdogan. The Jerusalem issue is a useful card he can play with Islamist constituencies at home and abroad. The day after he met with the Jordanian king, Erdogan discussed the Jerusalem issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin. On this, just as with anti-Americanism, both men are on the same page.
Erdogan is aware that nationalism blended with religion will reinforce his position. His strategy was clear when he visited Greece in early December.
Even as he became the first Turkish head of state in 65 years to visit, Erdogan suggested the need for the Lausanne Treaty to be revised. The treaty has long governed Greek-Turkish relations and is a cornerstone of regional peace. Perhaps perceiving the irredentism of the remarks, Greece categorically rejected them.
Had Erdogan foreseen such a reaction? Even if not, it is likely he will spin it in a way that will maintain the streak of luck.