In the season finale of the third season of "Homeland," Carrie Mathison, the bipolar CIA agent played by Claire Danes, is appointed as the Istanbul bureau chief to oversee the agency’s covert Iranian operation—the result of a season-long effort to place a double agent in the upper echelons of Iranian intelligence.
Meanwhile, Iran features prominently in the latest corruption scandal in Turkey: an Iranian businessman allegedly bribed the Turkish government and acted as a ringmaster in a gas-for-gold scheme that has brought down four ministers and the head of one of the Turkey's biggest banks.
"Homeland" has never been known for its accuracy in the U.S., but to some Turks, the Showtime series is part of an ongoing international plot against the country by “international groups,” a phrase frequently used by Turkey’s Premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A late-night news show on 24, a Turkish news network and a supporter of Erdoğan, discussed the show's season finale in detail a day after the corruption scandal broke on December 17 (which, in turn, came two days after the "Homeland" finale aired in the U.S.). “Homeland in Istanbul,” the chyron on 24 read. “Is Turkey the next target of the American deep state?”
“Weird how American thrillers always get the timing right,” Ardan Zentürk, the network’s nightly news anchor, said that night. While he insisted in an email that his show "used 'Homeland' as color rather than accuse the American deep state,” his guest that night thinks "Homeland" has actual CIA ties. “I’m sure that the writing team partners with CIA, gets information from them, and writes it accordingly,” Murat Tolga Şen, a movie critic on the popular beyazperde.com blog, writes in an e-mail. “The Istanbul appointment of the protagonist is a sign that things will heat up in this region in real life.”
Another TV critic, Tayfun Atay of the Turkish daily Radikal, also believes in what he calls the “logistics exchange,” a flow of ideas between the show’s creators and the CIA: “But it would be stretching to say that there’s a direct and organic tie.” Showtime’s press office did not return e-mails for comment.
Conspiracy theories in Turkey date back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. “The idea that Ottoman’s land was divided among Western countries left its residue in our collective subconscious; that the West has hostile intentions towards Turkey,” Sedat Ergin, a political analyst for Hürriyet daily, says in an e-mail. But such theories have reached a new high under the reign of Erdoğan, who argues that the latest corruption investigation has “international dimensions.” He even threatened to expel the American ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone.
The wide-ranging scandal is the biggest threat to Erdoğan’s 12-year rule in Turkey. Four ministers in Erdoğan’s cabinet were removed after allegedly receiving bribes in return for ignoring zoning rules and approving construction projects. Suleyman Aslan, the CEO of state-owned Halkbank was arrested and police seized from his home some $4.5 million in cash stuffed in shoeboxes. And Reza Sarraf, an Iranian gold dealer, was arrested and charged with bribing the economic minister. As the Daily Beast explains:
According to Turkish investigators, both men were at the center of a complex deal in which Iran sold oil and natural gas to Turkey for cash payments that were deposited in an account held at Halkbank. In order to circumvent international money-transfer sanctions on Iran, the cash deposits were then allegedly converted into gold that Turkey exported to Tehran, often via Dubai. Police reports filed with Turkish prosecutors estimate that in the past three years alone, $8 billion in gold was transferred to Iran.
Meanwhile, echoing Erdoğan, the pro-government media in Turkey is trying hard to convince the public that there is an international conspiracy to curb Turkey’s power in the region. “A global plot against Halkbank,” read one headline in the daily Sabah. The paper further claimed that the “Jewish lobby reached its goal,” arguing that AIPAC lobbied the U.S. Congress to pressure Turkey to stop Halkbank’s dealing with Iran.
Regardless of how harmless, twisted, or fun Turkey’s conspiracy theories may sound, they pollute the political debate. “I have no doubt that [the government] believes in these theories,” says Ergin. “This way, they can prevent facing realities, deny the existence of shoeboxes.”
Oray Egin is a writer in New York and Istanbul. Follow him @OrayinEnglish.