By Richard Spencer and Glen Johnson
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Just a year ago Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was the dominant face of Turkish politics and an important Middle Eastern power-broker who was both trusted by the West and open to the East.
He had governed for a decade on a successful mix of devoutly Islamist politics married with financial acumen, friendship with the West yet business ties with its Middle Eastern enemies like Iran.
Yet as crisis engulfed his government last week, the flailing prime minister’s formula for success had returned to haunt him as a corruption probe threatens to bring his empire down around him.
The golden threads of the scandal that saw huge sums of cash seized by in dozens of shoeboxes in the homes of the highest in the land, revolve around a lucrative oil and gold trade with Iran.
Large amounts of the proceeds of the trade were found in the boxes at the home of a state bank’s chief executive. More was turned up in a row of safes belonging to the son of the interior minister.
The ensuing corruption scandal has compounded a sense that Mr Erdogan had become detached from reality, lost in a myth of his own invincibility.
One MP who resigned from his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdal Kalkan, last week said he treated it “as if he owned the place”.
The scandal exploded into the open 12 days ago, when at dawn on December 17 police stormed into some of the smartest suburbs of Istanbul and Ankara.
Among those taken away were Suleyman Aslan, chief executive of the state-owned Halkbank; Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Azeri businessman who had taken Turkish citizenship; Mustafa Demir, mayor of Fatih, an Istanbul district; and Baris Guler, Salih Kaan Caglayan, and Oguz Bayraktar, sons respectively of the interior, economy and urban development ministers.
In the home of Mr Aslan, the bank chief, police found shoe-boxes crammed with €4.5 million (£3.75m) in dollars, euros and Turkish liras.
In the apartment of Mr Guler, the interior minister’s son, $750,000 (£455,000) in cash was found divided between six strong-boxes.
A note-counting machine was found conveniently placed nearby.
Leaks to the press served up ever more juicy details. There was the $350,000 Patek Philippe 5101G watch, which an assistant to Mr Zarrab flew specially to Geneva to buy to give to the economy minister, Zafer Cagaylan. There was the $70 million allegedly lavished on bribes to all the ministers supposedly involved in greasing the path for Mr Zarrab, the gold trade and a raft of business deals.
The raids struck at the heart of key contradiction of Mr Erdogan’s Middle East policy: while Turkey backed the Arab Spring revolts in Syria and Egypt, it continued to provide a vital lifeline for Iran, the Syrian regime’s biggest supporter.
Iran has long sold oil and gas to Turkey. But as sanctions imposed by America and Europe began to bite on Tehran, the trade became difficult to finance.
In March 2012 Iran was stopped from using the international money transfer system SWIFT.
To keep the energy imports going, Mr Zarrab, who is said to have been close to the former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his partners devised a clever alternative.
Unable to pay for the oil and gas in dollars or Euros, the Turks had to pay in their own currency, the lire, which was of little use in Iran. So instead, it was used to buy gold, which was then ferried to Dubai – a short trip across the Gulf from Iran.
One investigation found that $2 billion in gold bullion, or about 36 metric tons, was flown from Turkey to Dubai in August 2012 alone, mostly in the hand luggage of the dealers.
The buyers were Iranian, the trade placed in Dubai to lessen international scrutiny.
Turkish newspapers now add that shell companies were also established in China to re-route the cash used to pay for the gold, to further disguise the trade.
Halkbank continues to maintain that its role was legal. Certainly, the gold transfers, though confusing, were legally registered. A bank statement to Turkey’s stock exchange, where its shares slumped in value after the arrest of its boss, said that there were no sanctions against trading precious metals with Iran until July 1 this year.
“The source of the funds used in these transactions and the parties to this trade are open, transparent and traceable in the system,” it said.
It ceased the trade on June 10, when the United States made public its intention to broaden sanctions to include them, it said. But, according to calculations by newspapers, $8 billion of gold had already been funnelled to Iran.
Nor was Turkey the only country implicated. India, which also buys oil from Iran, had been let in on the act, also beginning to use Halkbank. According to Star, a pro-AKP paper: “India now owes Iran $5.3 billion in oil debt.
India is planning to pay Iran $1 billion per month — that is $12 billion annually — also through Halkbank.”
The trade may have been legal. But the payments paid by Mr Zarrab – using now his acquired Turkish name Sarraf – were not, according to the leaks. Mr Caglayan, the economy minister, was paid 103 million lira (£30 million), they alleged, and Mr Aslan, the bank chief, 16 million lira (£4.7 million), over two years. Mr Sarraf, a former money exchange man in Dubai, only started his gold business in 2011. By 2012, he controlled almost half of all Turkey’s now substantial gold exports.
If it weren’t for the virulence of Mr Erdogan’s reaction to all of this, it might just be counted another corruption inquiry: shocking, but not beyond scandals known in other countries, even European ones.
But Mr Erdogan does not take criticism lightly. In the summer, he had reacted with outrage as demonstrators took to the streets complaining about the redevelopment of Istanbul’s historic centre, turning a localised environmental protest into a national crisis.
In the wake of the arrests, he lashed out at investigators, journalists, and America and Israel, who he said were involved in a plot against him, even as his own son was named as a possible target.
Scores of police officers were removed from their posts, including some of those directly involved in the inquiry, and he has attempted to order that in future all such investigations are notified up the line of command, including political command, to prevent such a “surprise” happening again. That order has been blocked by the courts.
One of the three main prosecutors was also taken off the case, accused of being behind the leaks to newspapers.
A high profile defector, a former interior minister, Idris Naim Sahin, described his former party as an “oligarchy comprising politicians and bureaucrats, whose intentions are uncertain”.
He said Mr Erdogan’s response to the corruption inquiry, which involved purging the police officers in charge, could not “be explained with reason or justice”.
Mr Erdogan also turned on a powerful former ally: Hizmet, an Islamic charitable and educational foundation whose members and followers, once natural supporters of Mr Erdogan, are to be found throughout the modern Turkish establishment.
While they were together fighting the holdovers of Turkey’s former military dictatorship, Hizmet and the AKP worked together. But now Hizmet’s leader, the charismatic scholar Fethullah Gülen who never returned from exile in the United States, has turned.
“Those who don’t see the thief but go after those who chase the thief – may Allah bring fire to their homes,” he said in a televised message clearly aimed at Mr Erdogan. The prime minister hit back, saying that outsiders – by implication, Mr Gulen and his American hosts, were “setting wicked and dark traps in our country, using their local pawns to disrupt Turkey’s unity and integrity”.
As so often in politics, it may be the reaction to the scandal that brings the world crashing on Mr Erdogan’s head, rather than the scandal itself.
Oya Ozarslan, head of the corruption watchdog Transparency International’s Turkey bureau said: “Any action that could be deemed as interference should be avoided. Independent media and impartial judiciary are the most important elements of fighting against corruption.
“However, recent changes in the police forces and public prosecutors breaking out this scandal as well as the changes in the regulation of the police forces leave a number of question marks.”
Local elections are due in March, and a rejection of the AKP would be a severe blow domestically to Mr Erdogan’s standing, already tarnished abroad because of blowback from his Syrian campaign, with Turkey blamed for allowing foreign funding and fighters to bolster al-Qaeda’s cause over the Turkish border at the expense of pro-western “moderates”.
His defeat is no foregone conclusion, however. There are many who accept his explanations that the western world is plotting against him, and others who see no alternative – secular politics is sharply divided between left and right, and has for years been unable to mount a coherent opposition to the seemingly unconquerable Islamists.
Nevertheless, as riot squads once again returned to the streets of Istanbul on Friday night, facing off with protesters shouting “Catch the thief”, there is no doubt that Mr Erdogan is rattled.
“This is the most serious challenge that Erdogan has faced while in power,” said Erden Erdem, a researcher in political science at Ankara’s Hacettepe University. “The government is presently shifting the terms of the debate in the public, rather than engaging with the core issue: corruption.”