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Sweeping Potential High-Level Corruption Under the Rug of Collective Guilt in Turkey

“We have trade and energy ties with Iran. We did not breach the sanctions [on Iran]. Whatever the verdict is, we did the right thing. We have never made commitments to the U.S. [on our energy ties with Iran],” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly told ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputies at a closed-doors party meeting on November 30. “The world is not only about the U.S. We also have trade and energy relations with Iran,” he added.

President Erdogan’s comments were regarding the US court case on the bypassing of Iran sanctions through a comprehensive scheme operated by a Turkish-Iranian gold trader named Reza Zarrab. The case has also shed light on the alleged involvement of at least one state-run Turkish bank and a number of Turkish government officials.

In March 2016, Zarrab was arrested while vacationing in Florida and is now cooperating with US authorities. Throughout this time, Turkish officials, including President Erdogan himself, have publicly displayed a high level of uneasiness. The Turkish government’s spokesperson and Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag called the case “a plot against Turkey without any legal basis.” Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that Fetullah Gülen’s movement, which Turkey recognizes as a terrorist organization and one responsible for the attempted coup d’état in July 2016, has “infiltrated the United States’ institutions,” including the judiciary, and is orchestrating the Zarrab case against Turkey. Another AKP official called Zarrab “a known American agent,” neglecting the fact that it was the AKP government who granted Zarrab Turkish citizenship.

The Turkish government has had a consistent narrative —that this case is a widespread conspiracy against Turkey involving the United States and the Gülen movement. Moreover, though the names of the indictees and their alleged actions were clearly stated in the indictment, the Turkish political establishment has decided to try and present the whole country as a victim of this process.

President Erdogan was correct when he pointed out that violating the United States’ sanctions against Iran did not violate any Turkish laws. However, as the case proceeds, it is certainly possible that some allegations against Zarrab may indeed be punishable by Turkish law.

In particular, evidence and testimony have indicated that a number of senior government and state banking officials in Turkey may have been involved in high-level corruption as a part of the whole Iran-sanction violation scheme. Four former government ministers, a few state bank CEOs, and a number of their respective family members have allegedly received bribes ranging from relatively small individual gifts to fifty million dollars--all amounting to billions of dollars in corruption. If proven true, these allegations would undoubtedly prompt Turkish authorities to open several investigations and ultimately court cases against these individuals.

Yet, the Turkish government seems to have been focused mainly on constructing the image of a supposed global conspiracy against Turkey, rather than trying to employ local mechanisms to identify, investigate and prosecute the alleged individual corruption perpetrators.

The narrative of “collective guilt” was often used by political decision makers throughout history to try and unite countries against a “common enemy.” The short-term political benefits of this kind of narrative can be powerful, from strengthening the domestic support base to creating a leverage of a strong public opinion in negotiations with the international community. However, in the long run, this messaging is just a rug under which individual guilt is often swept.  A dominant political rhetoric can affect the functioning of democracy and independent institutions, and mark anyone who dares to ask questions a traitor to national interests. Therefore, the current narrative from Turkish government officials of a supposed grand conspiracy by the US-- a traditional partner and ally-- against the people of Turkey is dangerous. It not only makes it difficult for Turkish institutions to pinpoint potential wrongdoers and prosecute them according to Turkish laws but also infuses a sense of mistrust and deep anti-American sentiment throughout the country. Even with the collapse of this conspiracy, it will be very hard to turn these negative effects around quickly.

As in many other places, the people of Turkey are concerned about corruption in their own country. Moving away from fiery political charades of a global conspiracy, lifting the rug of “collective guilt,” and allowing the Turkish authorities to deal with cases of high-level corruption, would be the best long-term investment that Turkish decision makers have made in a while.