After more than a decade of charmed life, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is facing a series of potentially devastating corruption scandals that could bring his political career to an end. On Dec. 17, Istanbul police conducted a series of raids, arresting the sons of three ministers and a mayor. An Iranian money launderer charged with more than $100 billion in illegal oil-for-gold deals with Iran is accused of paying $63 million in bribes to a number of top ministers in the Erdogan cabinet. Three ministers have already resigned, and Erdogan has responded defiantly to the scandals, changing laws barring prosecutors and police from conducting investigations without clearing them with top ministers, and firing 100 police chiefs.
The scandal is multi-dimensional. The leads that produced the arrests and the government shakeup came from Russian Federal prosecutors who discovered the illegal gold transactions that ran through some Russian banks. They provided the crucial leads to their Turkish counterparts, who conducted a more-than-yearlong secret investigation leading to the Dec. 17 raids. According to one U.S. intelligence official familiar with the raids, the Iranian middle-man, Reza Zarrab, was linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and to ex-President Ahmadinejad. As the result of the arrests and crackdown on the smuggling ring, President Rouhani and his chief ally, former President Rafsanjani are strengthened for the time being, thus increasing the prospects of a final deal with the P5+1.
Inside Turkey, it is an open secret that the prosecutors, police chiefs and journalists who have blown open the AKP corruption scandal are all tied to the CEMAAT movement of Hanafi Muslim leader Fethullah Gulen. The Gulen Movement has been the pioneering force behind the emergence of the "Turkish Model" of progressive political Islam. Not only does Gulen have an extensive following inside Turkey. His people have been encouraged to infiltrate the key organs of state, including the police, the prosecutors offices and the national media. In an earlier period, this Gulen network helped build Erdogan's power by targeting elements of the military establishment in a series of prosecutions known as the Ergenokan scandals. Hundreds of retired and active military officers were charged with participation in a vast rightwing conspiracy and carted off to jail. The corruption created the political opportunity for Erdogan and the AKP to offer a modernizing Islamic anti-corruption alternative.
However, in early December, a story was leaked to reporter Mehmet Baransu of Taraf newspaper, revealing a National Security document, signed by Prime Minister Erdogan, ordering a crackdown against the Gulen networks in the police, the media and the interior ministry. For more than a year, frictions had been building between Gulen and Erdogan over the Turkish government's support for the Syrian rebels, including jihadist factions with ties to Al Qaeda.
Erdogan has clearly failed to study the history of Richard Nixon, who was brought down in reaction to his efforts to coverup what amounted to a petty political crime. Erdogan is cleaning out his government of all dissenting elements, and is moving aggressively to shut down any further arrests. He has appointed a new interior minister from among his most trusted inner circle, and is trying his best to tough out the crisis. His timing may be poor. In March 2014, the first of a series of critical elections take place for local governments. In August there are presidential elections, and parliamentary elections follow in mid-2015. It is a period of 18 months of intense politicking, in which corruption and a slowing economy will be two major issues. Erdogan is also facing a backlash against his Syria policy, which has created a major refugee and potential terrorism problem.
Fethullah Gulen is living in exile in Pennsylvania. He runs an extensive network of training schools, including 120 charter schools in the United States. His networks inside Turkey will have a dramatic impact on the upcoming elections, and his apparatus of journalists, prosecutors and police officials, while under attack, remain a major thorn in the side of Erdogan. In all of the hubub, one public figures has emerged as unscathed and that is President Gul. He has been increasingly a critic of Erdogan's shift towards support for more and more radical jihadist factions of the Syrian opposition, and he has remained above the fray as the fight between Gulen and Erdogan takes on mammoth proportions. Erdogan has already accused the U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone of being behind the "plot" and has claimed that Gulen is an agent of the CIA and the Mossad.
The Turkish-American alliance is too powerful a factor in regional politics to be ruined by the current scandals. What remains in doubt, however, is the future political career of Erdogan and his AKP apparatus. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks.