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Turkey’s Iran-US Tightrope

Istanbul mediates between Iran and the West. Turkey-Armenia normalization falters. MPs vote on controversial constitutional amendments. Istanbul ends its bloody “May Day syndrome.” The lira gets a boost. And Noah's Ark is discovered, again.

 Top News: As the Obama administration pushes for tougher international sanctions against Iran, Turkey has emerged as a key player in the controversy. Wedged between the Middle East and the West in terms of politics as well as geography, Turkey is using its unique situation to mediate between Iran and the West. Whether Turkey can really sell a peaceful alternative to the U.S. and Iran, however — two countries whose views of each other are still colored by anger — is still a big question. 

Turkish MPs will vote this week on a series of amendments to the constitution – changes the government says are essential to bring Turkey in line with European norms, and strengthen a judiciary often at odds with human rights groups. Opposition groups are fighting the proposed amendments, arguing that they will put too much power in the hands of the government over the judiciary. Already the Parliament has voted to reject a proposal to make it harder to ban political parties, a common practice here in Turkey, where almost 20 parties have been banned since the constitution was adopted in 1982.

When Armenian announced on April 22 that it was putting a halt to the ratification process of normalization protocols signed last year with Turkey, it was perhaps only an official confirmation of the elephant in the room. Designed to open up the borders and restore diplomatic relations, the accords are, and have been for some time, frozen in place. With both sides accusing the other one of adding conditions that were not initially agreed upon, one thing is clear – this road to peace is going nowhere.

Since the 1977 Bloody May Day — when 37 people were killed after unknown assailants opened fire on demonstrators — the Labor Day holiday in Istanbul had often been marked by violent confrontation between security forces and organized labor. May Day rallies have been banned in Istanbul’s famed Taksim Square since army generals swept into power in a military coup in 1980. This year, however, the government granted permission to union representatives and supporters to gather at Taksim, turning a day long associated with water canons and tear gas into day of peaceful and legal celebrations.

Money: Once the wimp of the financial playground, the Turkish lira is on the rise. In the face of a greatly stabilized and recovering economy, the lira gained 9.4 percent gain over the past year and experts predict that it could strengthen to 1.35 per dollar this year (it’s at 1.49 now). Long kept down by the country’s chronic inflation, the humble lira was the world’s least valuable currency in 2004. But with first-quarter economic growth approaching that of China things are looking up. While still in recovery mode  — Turkey’s economy shrank 14.7 percent in the first quarter of last year — stocks in Istanbul rose to a record this month. For Turks who remember having to carry heavy bags of cash to the grocery store, this is good news.

While the planned Nabucco pipeline has raised hopes that there might finally be a solution to European dependence on Russian fuel, it’s still too soon to celebrate. There have been some small victories, namely a tentative agreement between Turkey and Azerbaijan for the price of natural gas (an issue that has been at the root of several delays on the Nabucco project). But the issue of transit of Azerbaijani gas through Turkey is still unresolved. Worse, the development of natural-gas supplies for Nabucco may cost more than twice as much as the 10.5 billion pipeline itself.

Elsewhere: While Turkey has never been known as the most tolerant of states it’s worth reporting the rays of light that occasionally shine through. In Izmir, the country’s third most populous city, a prosecutor recently took the city’s Black Pink Triangle LGBT organization to court for being against public morals. The case was refused by the court, however, on the grounds that that the association was doing nothing that was against the constitution. For a country where there have been ten murders in the LGBT community in the last six months and LGBT organizations are routinely shut down, small steps forward like this matter.

A team of evangelical Christian explorers claim they've found the remains of Noah's ark beneath snow and volcanic debris on Turkey's Mount Ararat. Yeung Wing-cheung, a filmmaker accompanying the explorers told The Daily Mail that the expedition team is "99.9 percent" sure of their discovery. Others, well, aren't.