As I spoke to several senior government officials in the last couple of weeks in the Turkish capital, I realize there is a growing consensus among policy makers that the expansionist Persian ideology of Shiite Iran has increasingly begun posing a “clear and present” danger to Turkey’s national security. The reassessment of Iran’s destabilizing policies through proxy terrorist and illicit groups in the Middle East has concluded that the mullah regime in Iran will increasingly target Turkish interests at home and abroad, prompting Ankara to come up with alternative plans to counter that threat.
Obviously this re-evaluation was not merely a result of the differences between the two countries over Syria where Iran has been backing beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous minority regime against the overwhelmingly Sunni majority in the 17-month-long crisis. The rift between Ankara and Tehran has been brewing for some time from their rivalries in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Lebanon and in the countries in North and Sub-Saharan Africa. The basic difference is that while Ankara has been trying to shore up stability in these countries for future market opportunities, Tehran has been using militant and radical groups to destabilize them for political leverage. The isolated mullah regime knows very well that on a level playing field in these markets, Iranian companies will lose out to their highly competitive Turkish rivals. Hence Iran favors playing on ideological divisions and trying to exploit ethnic, religious and sectarian sensitivities in order to advance its own Persian nationalistic discourse. The prime example of this can be seen in Iraq.
The turning point in relations came when Iran resumed its support of the secessionist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the terrorist organization that has been waging a bloody war against the Turkish Republic for three decades. Turkish intelligence information indicates that the terror group has relocated some of its militants from PKK hideouts in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq to a terror camp on the Turkish-Iranian border, from where it is launching attacks against targets in Turkey. Squeezed by sweeping security operations by Turkish forces, PKK militants were provided shelter and a safe haven by Iran in the Şehidan camp in its own territory, across from the Şemdinli district of the Turkish province of Hakkari. The PKK carries out terror acts in the border provinces of Hakkari, Van, Bitlis and Şırnak in Turkey from this camp, killing Turkish nationals.
Iran, the world’s number one state-sponsor of terrorism, provides weapons, funds, intelligence and even manpower to the PKK, whose Iranian offshoot, a group called the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), announced the halting all operations against Iran last year following a secret deal between the PKK and Tehran. The fact that Iran allowed the PKK to use the Şehidan camp, which was used by the PJAK for many years, is strong evidence that the mullah regime is targeting Turkey. Many killed and captured PKK terrorists carry Iranian national IDs. Turkish officials also say they have compelling evidence that Iranian weapons, including advanced roadside bombs that were being detonated to kill Turkish soldiers and civilians alike, are being smuggled to the PKK by Iranian intelligence operatives.
The PKK is not the only leverage that Iran is using against Turkey. Tehran used radical leftist and far-right organizations in Turkey to launch targeted attacks in the past and provided their militant members with funds and training. We may even see assassination plots against high-profile people in Turkey, be it Turkish nationals or Western diplomats. In March, Turkish intelligence, in collaboration with Western intelligence, found that the Quds Force, a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which falls under the direct command of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had sent operatives to a number of countries, including Turkey, to kill diplomats and businesspeople. Reports indicate there have been extensive links tracing back to Iran and its proxy groups like Hezbollah for attempted assassinations in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, India, Pakistan and Georgia in the past year-and-a-half.
But Turkey is not the same country Iran used to deal with in the past. It is not conducting passive diplomacy and playing a defensive role but rather engages in very proactive and preemptive policies today in its own neighborhood. It has developed its own tools to counter Iranian threats and has invested a lot in measures that can be used as leverage against Iran as well. In other words, Turkey has learned how to dance with the Persians in a more effective manner. We can feel the change in the tune in public remarks issued by Turkish officials recently. In the past, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government limited its criticism of Iranian policies in closed-door meetings. Not any more. Frustrated with Iranian ill-intended policies against Turkey, Ankara has started openly bashing Iran, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saying that the Iranian government should review its own conduct before being held accountable by others. His words may be interpreted as an implicit warning to the Iranian leadership.
There are many weaknesses that the mullah regime in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Iran feels vulnerable to at home. Turkey, in cooperation with its allies in the region, may very well exploit these sensitivities to strike back at Iran for supporting terrorist groups against Turkey in a tit-for-tat policy. There are some 15 million Sunni Muslims living in Iran, with some 3 million Sunni Turkmen living along Iran’s common border with Turkmenistan, 4 million Sunni Baluchs living near the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, several million Sunni Arabs on the Gulf coast, about 7 million Sunni Kurds in the West, as well as half a million Sunni Turks and other Sunni groups in different parts of the country.
Moreover there are estimated to be some 35 million Azerbaijani Turks living in Iran. Turkey may enlist the support of Egypt, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan as well as the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, in countering the growing Iranian threat and challenging the mullah regime from the inside. In addition, Turkey should also mend fences with Israel quickly, simply because the Jewish state is the best equipped country in the Middle East on handling Iranian threats in covert and illicit operations. We know that dialogue between Turkey and Israel has been ongoing at the senior level of the foreign ministries in both countries despite the rift over the flotilla incident; it may now be high time to develop this not-so-public consultation mechanism into a new level of cooperation.
In a broader context, Turkey may seriously limit Iran’s efforts to circumvent unilateral EU and US-imposed sanctions as well as the UN-sponsored ones over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program which many, including Turkey, believe are aimed at nuclear arms. A more rigorous inspection of Iranian transit cargo may suffocate the logistical lifelines of the Iranian economy, which has already taken a blow from severe restrictions on its trade with Dubai, the traditional outlet for Iranian companies doing business with the world. Ankara may clamp down on the thousands of Iranian-funded companies operating in Turkey as well as reciprocating with a suspension of the visa-free travel regime for Iranian tourists to Turkey. Following the US-imposed sanctions on the Iranian oil industry, Turkey has already dramatically curtailed its oil purchases from Iran with further reductions planned ahead.
If Iran wants to play hardball, I guess Turkey could, should and would play the same game as well. The Turks showed how serious they were against Iran when they decided to sign up to NATO’s missile shield plan and allowed the US to install a state-of-the-art radar base in its territory to monitor the belligerent mullah regime. That should be a strong enough signal by itself to deter an Iranian expansionist vision in the Middle East and beyond.