Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Archive for February 2012

Iranian inroads in Turkey

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The Iranian lobby in Turkey
Gökhan Bacik; Today’s Zaman; Feb. 26, 2012

It is extraordinary to observe that the Iranian effect on Turkey, including its domestic politics, is crucial.

In sharp contrast, Turkey cannot generate the same level of influence on Iranian politics. I am not sure if there is any serious organized group in Iran that is influenced by Turkey. Similarly, Turkey’s influence over the Azeri people in Iran is very limited. More, there is no kind of consequential Turkish influence over Iranian intellectuals or political life. However, there are several, if not many, groups in Turkey who have historically been inspired by Iran. How is this possible, remembering that Turks have been a challenger of Iran since the Ottoman ages?

Here is a simple comparison: Turkey has been part of NATO since 1952. NATO protected Turkey during the Cold War against the Soviet threat. In the post-Cold War period, Turkey has gained a higher profile in many global issues, including the Arab Spring, due to NATO’s support. But, it has become almost shameful to support any NATO project in Turkey today. Opposition parties and journalists frequently criticize the government for being part of various NATO agendas. On the other hand, despite various high-profile Iranian figures regularly and openly threatening Turkey, it is not again easy to criticize Iran in Turkey. Since last year, ironically, it has been a major task of the Turkish government to persuade the public that the NATO radar system is not against Iran.

In like manner, both conservative and Kemalist secular parties have a very tolerant approach to Iran. Even one can easily detect that both Islamists and Kemalists have the same narrative on Iran. For instance, they both argue that the NATO radar system has been installed to protect Israel from Iran. For example, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Kemalist secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), on Sept. 8, 2011, said: “Why is this NATO radar system being installed in Turkey? Is it to protect Turkey? No, of course not. So what is it for? To protect Israel against Iran.” In this vein, I should note that since the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), the traditional Kemalist narrative of “Turkey is becoming Iran” was interestingly left behind.

So, how is Iran successful? Naturally, there are many reasons to explain this; however, I will just focus on two factors. To begin with, it may seem interesting but the 1979 Iranian Revolution had the utmost affect on various Sunni Islamic groups in Turkey. Iran has been an irrelevant sample for the Turkish Alevis. Thus, the early and significant effect of the 1979 Iranian revolution was felt among various Sunni Islamic groups. How was that possible? Various Sunni Turkish Islamic groups took the Iranian case as a political model against the West. Thus, they believed that they would be able to rid the Iran model of its Shia elements. Therefore, the Iranian model was imported to Turkey as if it was a sect-free phenomenon. Consequently, many distinguished people (in various public offices and universities) have a very positive view about the Iranian model in today’s Turkey. In a historical analogy, the 1979 Iranian Revolution was saluted by many Turkish Sunni Islamic figures just like the Arab Spring of the present day: An anti-Western popular revolution that would bring back the oppressed Muslims. A curios scholar will find many interesting things if he studies the Islamic journals and newspapers published in 1979.

The second factor is the economy. Turco-Iranian trade exceeds $15 billion, but it is not possible to send even $100 from Turkey to Iran through the banking system. There are more than 1,000 Turkish firms owned by Iranians in Turkey and there also exist many other informal social and political networks sustaining this huge trade volume. Of course, money is not a neutral phenomenon in politics, and this huge amount of money creates many networks between Iranian and Turkish politics as it travels between the two countries.

Written by M. James

February 29, 2012 at 12:36 am

Posted in Politics, Religion, Turkey

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Reconsidering Iran’s nuclear ambitions

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A sensible news report on Iran’s nuclear ambitions has finally emerged. From the Los Angeles Times:

As U.S. and Israeli officials talk publicly about the prospect of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, one fact is often overlooked: U.S. intelligence agencies don’t believe Iran is actively trying to build an atomic bomb.

A highly classified U.S. intelligence assessment circulated to policymakers early last year largely affirms that view, originally made in 2007. Both reports, known as national intelligence estimates, conclude that Tehran halted efforts to develop and build a nuclear warhead in 2003.

The most recent report, which represents the consensus of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, indicates that Iran is pursuing research that could put it in a position to build a weapon, but that it has not sought to do so.

U.S. spy agencies also have not seen evidence of a decision-making structure on nuclear weapons around Khamenei, said David Albright, who heads the nonprofit Institute for Science and International Security and is an expert on Iran’s nuclear program.

Albright’s group estimates that with the centrifuges Iran already has, it could enrich uranium to sufficient purity to make a bomb in as little as six months, should it decide to do so.

It is not known precisely what other technical hurdles Iran would have to overcome, but Albright and many other experts believe that if it decides to proceed, the country has the scientific knowledge to design and build a crude working bomb in as little as a year. It would take as long as three years, Albright estimated, for Iran to build a warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile.

In December 2007, the National Intelligence Estimate judged with “high confidence” that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. It judged with “moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”

As George Friedman said, very clearly, a month ago (here):

Moreover, while the Iranians may aspire to a deterrent via a viable nuclear weapons capability, we do not believe the Iranians see nuclear weapons as militarily useful. A few such weapons could devastate Israel, but Iran would be annihilated in retaliation. While the Iranians talk aggressively, historically they have acted cautiously. For Iran, nuclear weapons are far more valuable as a notional threat and bargaining chip than as something to be deployed. Indeed, the ideal situation is not quite having a weapon, and therefore not forcing anyone to act against them, but seeming close enough to be taken seriously. They certainly have achieved that.

Written by M. James

February 24, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Posted in News, Politics

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The solution to Greek debt

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This one’s been going around for at least two years now, but it still makes me chuckle:

Austrian head of Chamber of Commerce suggests selling Greek islands to Turks
Hürriyet; Feb. 22, 2012

Negative European attitude toward the Greek administration could be eased if Athens made the symbolic gesture of selling one of their islands to Turkey, according to the head of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, daily Milliyet reported on its website. 
“Greece will then show that they can give up some of their sovereignty, symbolically,” Christoph Leitl said in a recent interview with Profil magazine. “It would be significant in [expressing gratitude] for all the help they’ve received.”
When asked if he was serious, Leitl repeated his idea and added that it would help toward a solution in the Cyprus conflict as well. 
Leitl said that though the idea may seem insulting to Greece, it would have a positive impact on extremely right-wing people elsewhere in Europe. 
Greek Ambassador to Austria Themistoklis Dimidis, however, expressed “deep sadness” over the idea. “The statement sounds like a bad joke. Greece will never give up its borders.”

Written by M. James

February 22, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Arab Spring: Democracy against dictatorship?

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Some statistics, trustworthy or not, that confirm fears of ambivalence toward democracy among Libyans—and others:

What if the ‘people’ don’t want democracy?
Sarmila Bose; Al-Jazeera; Feb. 20, 2012

A survey has revealed that the people of Libya may not be keen on democracy after all. The “Arab Spring” has been celebrated in the Western world as a struggle of democracy against dictatorship. Often the implicit assumption was that what the revolutionaries who were trying to overthrow their authoritarian regimes wanted was a Western-style parliamentary democracy. So when only 15 per cent of those surveyed in Libya say they want democracy established in a year, compared with 40 per cent who profess a preference for a “strong leader”, it’s a bit of a let-down for Western cheerleaders of the upheavals in the Arab world. Moreover, apparently only about a third of those polled wanted democracy even in five years’ time.

Most crucial are the figures for those described as “weak democrats” – respondents who expressed support for democracy, but did not reject various non-democratic forms of government. On average in the five South Asian countries [India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka], 52 per cent of respondents were “weak democrats”, indicating a worryingly high proportion of ambivalence about democracy, as these are people who could go either way at any crucial moment of decision about regime type. Even in India, 43 per cent of respondents fell in the “weak democrats” category, not that far off from Pakistan, where the proportion was 49 per cent.

Libya’s recent history is very different from the diverse political experience of South Asia, and Libyans being asked about their political preferences have emerged from a long spell of dictatorship with no direct experience of electoral politics. It is true that they do not know “how democracy works”, but what is interesting is that their ambivalence and inconsistent responses to democracy is shared by many others who do know “how democracy works”, or, indeed, how it doesn’t.

Written by M. James

February 20, 2012 at 11:37 am

Posted in Culture, Politics

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Iskandar on Turkey, Bahrain

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Though the following article is nothing spectacular, it haphazardly touches on some worthwhile points. First, there’s the pressure on Turkey to intervene in Syria, which I noted in a prior post (“Taşpınar prods Turkey”). Second, there’s the assertion that secularism—rather than democracy—is the reason the Turkish model is incompatible with Arab states. Finally, there’s the criticism of Al-Jazeera for not covering the protests in Bahrain—a valid criticism that AJE has apparently taken note of (I, II, III).

Turkey pushed over Syria
İpek Yezdani; Hürriyet; Feb. 20, 2012

Adel Iskandar, an Arab media scholar, says it is in the interest of a lot of countries to push Turkey to intervene in Syrian crisis, which rocks the country for nearly 1 year, a move that could be injurious to Turkey

Turkey is in a very difficult situation vis-à-vis Syria since many Western countries are pushing it to intervene in its southern neighbor, a prominent Arab media scholar has said, adding that such an attack would not benefit Ankara.

“A lot of countries are refraining from getting involved in Syria militarily, and it is in the interest of a lot of countries to push Turkey to intervene Syria. But the reality is, is that it might not be in Turkey’s best interest,” Adel Iskandar, a lecturer at Georgetown University, recently told the Hürriyet Daily News.

“The Syria case is a true tragedy in every sense of the term because the Syrian people are caught between two unfavorable situations: On one side, there is the authoritarian, bloody-minded regime of Bashar al-Assad and, on the other, there is the threat of foreign intervention which they don’t trust but they might need out of necessity,” Iskander told the Daily News on the sidelines of a conference he gave at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.

A military intervention against Syria would not be “as easy as Libya,” he said. “Al-Assad still has some supporters. They will fight to the last minute. And this would lead to a full-fledged war between Syrians themselves. Turkey finds itself at the center of all of this. An attempt to stabilize Syria might destabilize Syria more.”

Turkish model unique

Iskandar also noted the importance of differences between Turkey and the Arab Spring countries.
“Holding up Turkey as an example to the Arab world is an oversimplification and not useful to anyone,” Iskandar said.

“The Turkish experiment is extremely unique, and its long history starts with the post-Ottoman area and [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk. Each country has to devise its own way toward democracy. [The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)] is not the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis. And you are not going to be able to turn the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis into the AK Party in one night,” Iskandar said.

Iskandar said holding up Turkey as a model for the Arab Spring countries honored neither the Arab world nor Turkey. “Turkey is not an entirely Middle Eastern country. It is a cosmopolitan nation, it has its own particularities. And these particularities are completely different from Libya, for instance,” Iskandar said.
Iskandar drew attention to the fact that the “Turkish model is framed on the notion that secularism is an important part of the state structure.”

“However, the majority of the Arab world doesn’t have secularism in politics. Even [toppled Egyptian leader] Hosni Mubarak was not secular. The term ‘secular’ in the Arab world is considered an extremely negative term. You can’t call yourself ‘secular’ in the Arab world. Besides, people want religion to be a part of politics. It is in the opposite direction to Turkey’s state traditions. It has to be seen through a historical lens,” Iskandar said.

‘Al-Jazeera neglected Bahrain completely’

Iskandar, who has written one of the most prominent books on Qatar’s Al-Jazeera news network, also discussed how the channel has covered the ongoing Arab Spring.

“To a large extent, Al-Jazeera did the job they should be doing by covering the story that unfolded. At the end of the day, Al-Jazeera has made its bread and butter from political protests. So it was natural for Al-Jazeera to cover the protests,” he said.

However, Iskandar said there were some uprisings that the channel had completely neglected.

“Like in Bahrain. [In terms of the] percentage of the protestors, the Bahraini movement is the largest movement in the Arab Spring. However, the saddest situation is that while the Bahraini and Syrian revolts started at the same time of the year; one year after that Syrian is getting 99 percent of the coverage while Bahrain is only getting 0.01 percent of the coverage. This is going to hurt the network and its credibility in the eyes of the public,” Iskandar said.

Written by M. James

February 20, 2012 at 1:32 am

March 20th

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The Iranian view, from the Tehran Times (“Visions of violence in defense of the dollar“):

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has reiterated Iran’s willingness to resume negotiations with the Western powers and has even allowed a team of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to return to Iran. These inspectors may find some ambiguous, inconsequential shred of evidence, the significance of which may then be magnified to gargantuan proportions by the Western media, and held up as proof positive of the “smoking gun” confirming the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. The inspectors will exit Iran and present their findings; there will be an exchange of charges and denials; ultimatums will ensue; and then Israel may make a provocative move. In an understandable and justifiable response, Iran may close the Strait of Hormuz, causing an anticipated 50% rise in crude oil prices, resulting in widespread economic havoc. Also, March 20, 2012, which is Noruz, the Iranian New Year, is the target date for the Iranian oil bourse to begin trading crude oil in currencies other than the U.S. dollar.

Meaning: On March 20th, Iran will stop trading oil in dollars entirely.

The dispute over Iran’s nuclear program is nothing more than a convenient excuse for the U.S. to use threats to protect the “reserve currency” status of the dollar. Recall that Saddam announced Iraq would no longer accept dollars for oil purchases in November 2000 and the U.S.-Anglo invasion occurred in March 2003. Similarly, Iran opened its oil bourse in 2008, so it is a credit to Iranian negotiating ability that the “crisis” has not come to a head long before now.

Europe is on the brink economic chaos due to the prudent monetary policies of the European Central Bank, which has refused to print money to buy government debt, quite unlike the U.S. Federal Reserve. Having been lured by cheap 1% bailout loans from the Fed to prevent government defaults, Europe caved in to the Zionist-inspired U.S. pressure and agreed to shoot itself in the financial foot by imposing oil sanctions on Iran, thus guaranteeing a European double-dip recession. For the U.S., however, these financial events help ensure that the euro will not pose the threat it once did to the dollar’s hegemony over oil transactions.

March 20th is also the potential date of the Greek default—pending the restructuring of a €14.5 billion bond repayment.

The possibilities are endless.

Written by M. James

February 19, 2012 at 9:47 pm

Taşpınar prods Turkey

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What follows is today’s column by Ömer Taşpınar, senior fellow at Washington D.C.’s Brookings Institution. It is, in essence, a childish jab at Turkish indecision regarding Syria.

Does this give us insight into Washington’s own [indecisive] position on Syria?

Time for Turkey to match words with deeds
Ömer Taşpınar; Today’s Zaman; Feb. 12, 2012

There comes a time in the life of a regional power when action on moral grounds becomes inevitable.

This is usually the time when deeds need to match words. This moment is usually when there is not much left to say. The human suffering on the ground speaks for itself. In such times, there emerges a consensus among democratic countries with informed public opinions. They want to see action and justice instead of more of a diplomatic stalemate. As a regional power that wants to be taken seriously, Turkey is fast approaching this moment in the Syrian crisis. All eyes are on Turkey because it is seen as the actor with the greatest capacity to act.

In a sense, Turkey is becoming the victim of its own success. When Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu repeatedly argued that his country is a central, key player that should lead in the effort to find “regional solutions to regional problems,” Washington listened and took him seriously. Perhaps more importantly, the Obama administration believed Davutoğlu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. So when this opportunity to lead and to take action came with the crisis in Syria, Washington was more than willing to let Turkey do what Davutoğlu claimed his country was capable of.

The Syrian crisis became a litmus test for Turkish influence and regional credibility in the eyes of an American administration that wished to “lead from behind” as it did in Libya. In Libya, France and Britain took the lead to avoid a slaughter and massacre in Benghazi. Now a slaughter and massacre is happening in the Syrian city of Homs. Eight hundred people were killed in the last 10 days. The death toll has reached 6,000 since the beginning of the uprising. Many in Washington would love to see Turkey take the lead in Syria the way France and Britain did in Libya. No wonder the question “What is Turkey’s Syria strategy?” is now hotly debated in Washington policy circles. No one has a clear answer to that question.

Given the high hopes attached to Turkey’s ability to act, it is with some disappointment that American and European policy makers are now finding out that there is not much of a Turkish appetite to act. In fact, there is not even much of an appetite in Turkey to take the lead in Syria. This is why when asked what the Turkish strategy is, the Turkish answer seems to be to echo back the same question: What is the American strategy? What is clear is that the “regional” superpower, Turkey, doesn’t want to become a superpower that outsources work on its problems. This is also why the best Turkey can come up with now is the idea of an international conference. But to what end? To see once again that there is no consensus among Western democracies and authoritarian regimes — such as China, Iran and Russia — about what to do and what to say about Syria. In any case, the time for more words is coming to an end. We are fast approaching the time to take action.

Cynics will say that we should not underestimate the ability of regional and global superpowers to remain idle as mass slaughters take place. Yes, 6,000 people were killed in Syria. But what about Rwanda, where everyday 6,000 were slaughtered? A total of 800,000 were killed in the Rwandan genocide and today no one even remembers what happened. Cynics will also ask why it would be in Turkey’s national interest to act alone in Syria. Why should Turkey take the lead when America appears so reluctant to do so itself? To be sure, there are many logical factors explaining Turkey’s prudence. They range from Turkey’s Kurdish problem to a fear of the unknown once the Assad regime is gone. But the sad reality of Syria is that a peaceful transition is no longer in the cards. We are fast approaching the time for action, whether Turkey likes it or not. But Turkey has a choice. It can live up to its words by taking the lead or it can watch from the sidelines the emergence of a NATO “coalition of the willing” for military action. The time for more international conferences has passed. It is time for Turkey to live up to its words with deeds. Ankara can do so by reminding itself that it is a member of NATO, too.

Written by M. James

February 12, 2012 at 10:16 pm