During Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “working visit” to Turkey on Aug. 14-15, 2008, a visit that was described by the Iranian ambassador in Turkey, Bahman Hooseinpoor, as the “most important visit” in the last 12 years of bilateral ties between the two countries, five agreements were signed in areas such as environment, transportation, tourism, security and culture. Some saw these framework agreements as more routine bilateral deals that were devoid of any substance, yet others argued that these deals with Iran actually have more tooth than originally thought.
The one that caught my attention was the agreement signed on terrorism and intelligence cooperation because some suspected that Turkey might have entered into a binding agreement that had inadvertently allowed Iranian security services to penetrate deep into the Turkish intelligence community. I will not go that far, but there are certainly some eyebrow-raising issues in the agreement that deserve careful examination.
The deal was signed on Aug. 14, 2008, in İstanbul and officially titled “Agreement for Cooperation between the Government of the Republic of Turkey and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Combating Drug Smuggling, Organized Crime and Terrorism.” The government submitted the agreement to Parliament for approval on Jan. 12, 2009. It was approved by the Foreign Relations Commission on Feb. 10, 2011, and enacted into law by Parliament on Feb. 22, 2011. The agreement became effective when the Cabinet directed its publication in the Official Gazette on March 14, 2011.
Cooperation on drug smuggling was ostensibly the overriding theme in the agreement, yet it calls for an exchange of information and intelligence on any group or individual deemed a security threat to both countries in terror and criminal enterprise. In other words, the agreement effectively opens the way for the Iranians to take a closer peek into the intelligence gathering of Turkish security services. Article 2 of the agreement describes the cooperation methods in detail. Based on this, Tehran may request that Turkey provide information on groups and individuals engaged in cross-border organized crime. Turkey also promises to provide information on combat and prevention methods with these crimes.
The most troublesome provision was spelled out in paragraph three of Article 2. It mentions “exchanging intelligence on equipment and activities of terrorist groups identified by the parties.” Considering that the concept and understanding of “terrorism” are completely different from each other, except maybe on “Kurdish terror,” Iran and Turkey must have difficulty in reconciling their distinct approaches on this issue. Nevertheless, if the Iranians label one group or individual in Turkey as “terrorist” or “criminal” according to their twisted judicial system, Turkey would be under a legal obligation to provide intelligence to the Iranians. This is a recipe for disaster as it may very well prompt a clash with Turkey’s Western allies.
The agreement also calls for an exchange of information on legislation stipulated for the prevention of crimes mentioned in the deal. This effectively allows the Iranians to exert influence on legislative work in Parliament even during the drafting stages. Paragraph five of Article 2 sets the framework for the exchange of intelligence and information on border crossings. This may be another headache for the Turkish government. We know that the Iranians have been using the Turkish border to supply arms and munitions to Syria and terror groups in the Middle East. Some of these shipments were seized during their journey in Turkish territory either at the border gate or during transit. Some apparently violated UN-imposed sanctions, and others breached unilateral ones announced by Turkey, the US and the EU. If the Iranians were provided intelligence on border controls according to this agreement, Turkey would be in a position to relay the sensitive information to the Iranians and therefore facilitate illegal shipments. It is like shooting oneself deliberately in the foot.
According to the terms of the agreements, Turkey is also required to cooperate with Iran on enhancing the capacity of Iranian security services with regard to detection, equipment and experience in terror and crime. This includes exchanges of visits by experts to centers producing security equipment and devices. This may also potentially compromise Turkish efforts to enhance its own technical and human capacity by cooperating with the US or EU security partners. Turkey may be shunned by the US or the EU if they suspect the information and technical equipment they provide to Turkey may end up in the hands of the Iranians. A case may emerge where Turkey will be accused of breaking US laws prohibiting the sale or transfer of American technology to Iran such as the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA).
Paragraph 14 of Article 2 gives Iran the right to ask for training programs for its own nationals in Turkey, which will include police, experts and lecturers, for the purpose of getting information on new scientific detection methods. The last paragraph of Article 2 not only calls for “an exchange of information” between operational forces to carry out operations in the field of counterterrorism but also authorizes “coordination,” a further step into actionable cooperation.
Article 3 of the agreement was completely devoted to “counterterrorism” and points out, “Parties shall cooperate fully in order to combat terrorist activities.” Terrorist activities are defined by national legislatures, giving a freer hand to Tehran to press Ankara on a number of Turkey-based civilian groups and individuals that are advocating a democratic challenge to the regime. This may even include Iranian refugees who escaped from a repressive regime to search for a better home in Turkish territory or en route to a third country.
With this agreement, the High Security Commission convenes regularly between the undersecretaries of interior ministries from both countries, becoming an integral part of security cooperation between Iran and Turkey. The commission prepares and updates the list of terrorist organizations, individuals and associations. Based on the list, Iran may very well ask Turkey to arrest an individual or groups that were convicted by Iranian courts for suspected terrorist activities. The only tool available for Turkey to deny cooperation with Iran was inserted in Articles 5 and 11, which states that the parties reserve the right to reject any request from each other if it violates national legislation, and that the agreement cannot violate existing multilateral or bilateral agreements, respectively.
This may be an escape route for Turkey. But any decision in these matters disputed by the parties is still subject to a Joint Working Group (JWG) decision, chaired by the undersecretary of the Interior Ministry of Turkey and the deputy interior minister of Iran. The JWG, according to Article 8, will have the authority to evaluate any dispute in this regard. Article 6 classifies any intelligence document or information exchanged between the two countries as “confidential” and requires written notification before it can be passed to a third party. The agreement is valid for three years since adoption by the parliaments (that puts the expiration date in 2014) and will be extended automatically for another term if neither party requests a termination at least six month in advance.
Now, as for the question of whether this agreement is “short on substance,” I would have to say it is certainly a substantial step forward and brings a new set of mechanisms to make it functional. What is more, any agreement is what you actually make it out to be. Considering there has been at least one cabinet-level exchange visit each month between the two countries in recent years, not to mention frequent visits at the prime minister or presidential levels (by the way, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will make a visit to Iran on March 28), there is good reason to think that this agreement is actually performing much better than some originally thought.