Risk at Turkey’s borders with Iran

Mindful of Iranian attempts to secretly use Turkish soil to provide arms and munitions to illicit terrorist groups as well as to repressive regimes like Syria, Turkey has increased security precautions at its border gates with Iran, the world’s “most active state sponsor of terrorism,” according to the US State Department. The intelligence assessment that has increasingly isolated Tehran and may speed up its efforts to procure dual-use industrial goods — products and technologies normally used for civilian purposes but which may have military applications — has led to further scrutiny of Iranian cargo by customs officials in Turkey.

Because of the sensitivity of the issue with the neighboring country, which is an important energy supplier to Turkey, Ankara is avoiding making public evidence collected concerning Iranian attempts to breach UN Security Council decisions imposing embargos on Tehran, despite being required to report any infraction to the monitoring committee at the UN.

In an interview with Today’s Zaman, Customs and Trade Minister Hayati Yazıcı sounded very determined to overhaul the border gates with more manpower and modern equipment in order to cut the waiting time at the border gates and to be able to discover more easily contraband hidden in cargo containers. When I talked to him in October, he said his ministry was working closely with the US Customs and Border Protection Agency to beef up security measures employed at Turkish border crossing points. He also disclosed that intensive in-service training programs in cooperation with Turkey’s allies were provided to Turkish customs officials to help them identify emerging threats at borders.

With assistance from German and British customs authorities, Turkey is developing a “risk management” program at the Customs Ministry to determine threats posed at the gates. The program is financed by the EU with 16.6 million euros and is expected to be completed by the end of this year. The twinning project aims to bring expertise, know-how and technology, including mobile scanners, from German and British agencies to their Turkish counterpart. Yazıcı was enthusiastic that the new systems and technical equipment the ministry is to acquire will boost the capacity of the Customs Security System (GÜMSİS) Project, which includes, among others, a vehicle tracking system, a nuclear material detection system and a container scanning system to monitor and prevent illegal commodity, vehicle and human trafficking.

A security surveillance system for all vehicles entering the country to allow real-time monitoring at the Ankara Command Center throughout their stay in the country paid off recently. Using the monitoring system earlier in January four Iranian trucks were stopped in Turkey’s Kilis province on the border with Syria and were found to be carrying raw materials used for making ballistic missiles. Turkey intercepted an arms shipment from Iran to Syria in August and in March last year and seized the cargo of an Iranian plane full of weapons bound for Syria because the shipment violated UN sanctions.

Yazıcı lamented on the fact that the inspection rate in high-risk areas is as high as 40 percent, way above the average in many European countries, which hampers legal trade. Stressing that the figure reflects Turkey’s particular needs in a very tough neighborhood, Yazıcı remarked that he has to balance the need for a speedy clearance of commercial goods with the need to be very vigilant on illegal goods transiting Turkish border gates. He emphasized that Turkish customs enforcement officials are very careful about dual-use goods and identify them using inspection and expertise. However, he criticized that some countries are not as sensitive as Turkey when it comes to dual-purpose products. “This is a gray area. There are various unfair practices in use in different places. While we were preventing them [certain cargo] from proceeding to Iran, other countries, including ones in Europe shipped them regularly,” he underlined.

The government adopted a decree in the force of law on Sept. 26 last year giving an expanded mandate to the Customs and Trade Ministry to take the necessary security measures at its border gates. The ministry hired 1,400 personnel just last year to address understaffing problems at the border gates and plans to hire 800 more. It set up “rapid response teams” and deployed them at the eastern border gates, including Gürbulak, the main customs point for traffic between Iran and Turkey on the northeastern border. Gürbulak was modernized in 2003 using the successful “build-operate-transfer” model in cooperation with the International Transporters’ Association of Turkey (UND). A new agreement was signed in August 2011 with UND to further expand and modernize the border gate. Though the UND handles commercial traffic, the security and customs procedures are still controlled by customs officials. The gate is equipped with a large X-ray machine for vehicles and airport-style scanning machines for passengers’ luggage. It checks all cargo for radiation and hazardous inorganic and organic materials.

Another crossing point between Turkey and Iran is located at Kapıköy to the east of Van province, which allows both passenger and freight trains on a weekly basis to pass through. On April 16, 2011, the Kapiköy gate was expanded to allow vehicle crossing as well. It links to Razi town in Iran’s west Azerbaijan province. The gate is in the process of modernization, with the same model being used that is employed at Gürbulak. The EU allocated 3.9 million euros to Turkey to equip this border gate with scanning capabilities for train wagons. The project is at the tendering stage and will be completed within the first half of 2012. In May 2007, when a terrorist attack derailed a Turkish train carrying containers that passed through Kapıköy gate, Turkish security officials were surprised to find Iranian arms, including mortar shells, RPG barrels, rifle rounds and bombs en route to Syria. It prompted the delivery of a Turkish protest note to Iran.

The most worrisome crossing point, however, is the Esendere border crossing in Yüksekova town in the southeastern province of Hakkari, which connects to Sero, Orumeyeh on the Iranian side. It was opened to allow mostly border trade between local residents on either side. It is, however, in poor shape, severely understaffed with no modern scanning equipment available on site. The gate is manned only by customs officers who are not allowed to carry guns and are under constant threat from the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Customs employees even petitioned to the ministry detailing the miserable working conditions at the gate and how the PKK is using it to smuggle almost anything with impunity. Since the area is under the jurisdiction of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), the police have no presence there. The TSK has also refused to set up a checkpoint, citing security concerns.

On a daily basis, the 50-some cars passing through the gate without any security checks represents the weakest link in border security along the Iranian border. The PKK even collects a toll on each passing car and levies illegal taxes on merchants bringing commodities from Iran, earning over $1 million a year from this criminal activity. The PKK’s activities at the gate were also detailed in an indictment filed by a Van prosecutor in the case of the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organization for the PKK. Intelligence reports warned that Iran might have used the PKK as a contract carrier to ship contraband through this border gate. The fourth border gate is scheduled to open at the Maku crossing near Dilucu, Iğdır. The agreement was signed on Sept.16, 2010 in İstanbul, but the domestic procedures on both sides have not been finalized yet. It is expected to be opened in 2013.

Border gates with Iran represent one of Turkey’s most important trade links extending to not only Iran but to Central Asia, Pakistan and other countries in the East. Turkey cannot afford to suffocate transit trade along the Iranian border by bottlenecking the crossing points. That does not mean, however, Turkey will step back and watch as Iran tries to smuggle all kinds of banned materials through Turkish territory. Ankara has raised the alert level with regard to Iranian cargo by land, sea and air and remains vigilant, with improved intelligence and surveillance over Iranian activities. It should, however, speed up efforts to modernize its border gates with state-of-the-art technological equipment and address any shortcomings urgently in order to better fight against illegal shipments coming to and from Iran.

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