Turkish minister’s hesitation over agreement with Iran

Turkish minister’s hesitation over agreement with Iran

Turkey and Iran signed a “preferential trade agreement” on Jan. 29 in Tehran, within the framework of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s official visit. The first of its kind for Turkey, the two countries have been working on this agreement for 10 years.

But when the time came to sign and the names of Iranian and Turkish ministers were announced, something unusual happened. As Turkey’s FoxTV station broadcasted the footage, Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekçi did not move toward the ceremony desk as he was expected to do. Instead, he stood still. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had a “what’s going on?” glance at Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was standing to the left of Zeybekçi and responded with an “it’s alright” glance. Then Davutoğlu and Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız, who was standing to the right of Zeybekçi, started to whisper something to him that took quite a few seconds. In the meantime, Yıldız made a low profile “he is signing, no problem” hand gesture to PM Erdoğan who was sitting in one of the protocol chairs on the other side of the ceremony desk. Erdoğan also made a gesture to Zeybekçi to put his signature on the document, and Zeybekçi did indeed sit down to put his signature on the document.

Why was he hesitant to put his signature under the agreement? And what were the foreign and energy ministers trying to tell him? I could not reach him to ask, as he was travelling, but I spoke to a ranking Economy Ministry official who asked not to be named. According to this source, the Iranians had asked for additional last minute concessions and wanted the minister to sign the cover page only, without putting his initials on the other pages. “Our minister did not want that,” the source said. “He put and made the Iranian minister put his initials on all pages.”

This is the official explanation for economy minister’s hesitation. Now let’s have a closer look at the circumstances that might have caused Zeybekçi to be hesitant in signing a critical document with Iran.
Zeybekçi has barely completed his first month in office. He was appointed as economy minister by Erdoğan, after the latter had asked for the resignation of Zafer Çağlayan, whose his name was involved in the graft probe that started on Dec. 17, 2013, along with three other ministers who also resigned.

Secondly, the corruption probe is mainly about alleged bribes taken from a newly-rich Iranian origin businessman, Reza Zarrab, who has been involved in oil-for-gold trade with Iran for some time, and who wanted to make his life easier in dealings with the Turkish government. Therefore, there is an Iranian trade angle.

Thirdly, on the morning of the same day, Jan. 29, an Istanbul court lifted the block on the assets of Zarrab. When two prosecutors, Celal Kara and Mehmet Poyraz, who had started the Dec. 17 graft probe, made an objection to this court decision, they were immediately removed from their posts by mid-day.

The next day, Jan. 30, Iranian courts seized all assists of another newly-rich businessman, Babak Zenjani, who is also involved in oil-for-trade business and is allegedly the boss of Zarrab. The same day, all documents of the Dec. 17 graft probe, of which Zarrab is among those arrested, were taken from the offices of the removed prosecutors. The documents reportedly included the indictment of the case, for which there is no prosecutor left to bring to the courts.

The U.S. and the EU have been urging the Erdoğan government to abide by the transperancy and rule of law standards of Western democracies in the struggle against corruption. But, at least in this example, Iran seems to have taken more effective steps than Turkey in that field. So it is understandable why the new Turkish economy minister, who comes from a business background, was hesitant in putting his signature under such a critical agreement, at such a critical time.