Today, United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley testified about Iranian schemes to dodge restrictions on missile shipments. This is news, but it is not new. Another criminal trial ongoing in US Federal court shows that Iran has been scheming to find ways around UN restrictions all along. This time, though, they had the help of a key American ally. The danger is ultimately not merely to the alliance between Turkey and the United States, but to the integrity of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) itself. For some reason, the government is handling this as a simple criminal trial rather than the diplomatic crisis that it really is.
In 2013, Turkish police began conducting raids around what would prove to be an illegal ‘oil for gold’ scheme designed to avoid American and international sanctions on Iran. Tapes implicating Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and his government were uncovered as part of the investigation. Now, American justice is finally having a chance to hold some of the allegedly involved bankers responsible. But this level of gold and oil doesn’t move through the authoritarian regimes in Turkey or Iran without government involvement. Erdogan visited Iran with a large delegation during the sanctions period, and while the trades were not openly discussed at that time, there is every reason to believe he was there in part to give blessing to them. State media in both Turkey and Iran have broadcast coverage of these events. Our intelligence services were surely aware of what was happening. The Obama administration clearly decided to handle this as a low-level criminal matter affecting only a few bankers.
Yet it is a threat to our most important military alliance. Significant NATO votes require unanimous decisions. A Turkey that began to exercise its NATO vote as a veto could make NATO as ineffective as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a vehicle for addressing global security issues. Though the UNSC is formally powerful, authoritarian powers Russia and China can veto any action. That veto has rendered the UNSC mostly useless as a solution to the world’s most serious problems. If Turkey becomes a similar authoritarian veto within NATO, NATO too may become ineffective.
The danger is heightened because Erdogan’s government has been drifting further away from the United States for some time. As early as 2003, Erdogan’s political party – the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – used its leadership of the government to refuse to allow Coalition forces a northern front in the Iraq war. Erdogan’s government rejects Western values such as freedom of thought and inquiry. Thousands of academics have been barred from working. At the same time, Erdogan has tightened his control of the government: thousands of police and soldiers have been purged from security forces for their political views. A leaked intelligence report suggests that the Turkish government is arming criminal gangs in Germany.
It may even be that Erdogan is preparing Turkey for a break from the US alliance. Turkish sources tell SSG the Erdogan government has put forward a story that American intelligence may have been behind an abortive coup attempt. There is rampant speculation that deniable assets of American intelligence, perhaps including former intelligence officers, worked with the America-based Gulen faction to try to stage the coup. The apparent prevalence of this narrative suggests that Erdogan’s government is explicitly driving a wedge between the United States and Turkish citizens. That cannot bode well for the already-faltering relationship between Turkey and the United States.
We must also question the blind eye turned by American diplomacy to Iran’s corrupting of a major US ally. For the Obama administration the pursuit of the nuclear deal was paramount, even if it allowed a major NATO ally to be corrupted and the alliance itself to be endangered. The new administration should reconsider that decision.