Iran’s clandestine operations in Turkey

Iran’s clandestine presence in Turkey is largely hidden from public view in part because Iran prefers to keep a low profile on its activities in Turkey and hides behind ostensibly charitable causes, cultural and educational programs. In fact, this sinister campaign of Iran poses greater danger for Turkey’s national security than potentially a nuclear-armed Iran because of the disruptive nature of activities that are aimed to shake the very fabric of social make-up in Turkish society, creating tremors along fault-lines across the board.

For example, intelligence indicates that Iran has cultivated strong ties with some Alevi communities in Sivas and neighboring provinces in the heartland of the country where Iranian influence has long gravitated even during Ottoman times centuries ago. Iran knows that the fragile balance among diverse groups, especially between the Sunni majority and Alevi minority groups, is the soft underbelly of Turkey and wants to use that as trump card against Turkey. The worry is Iran banks on this asset it has developed for some time very much like a volcano flow slowly burning the composition of society. The marking of Alevi houses in different cities and towns in the past couple of years has been a test-run for Iranian intelligence for the reckoning day with Turkey, even though officials publicly downplayed them as the work of children.

Is it a coincidence that the same pattern happened in the southern provinces along the Syrian border line? Intelligence analysts do not think so. Iran, either alone or in cooperation with Syrian intelligence for which the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have helped develop over decades, has tried to intimidate Alevi communities in these provinces by provocations. There are reports that some Alevi communities have armed themselves for fear of attacks. That is one of the serious weak spots in Turkey’s settlement policy it has been pursuing with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) since December last year. I was told by people who are familiar with the recent intelligence reports that Iranian agents have been trying to poke around Alevi commanders within the PKK to disrupt this settlement process. Tehran will likely wait until the presidential elections are over in Tehran to push the button, but the stage is getting set for that contingency, analysts believe.

Iran has also been courting the illegal Kurdish Hizbullah to attain some leverage within the organization. Although Hizbullah has no ties with the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah, the leaders of Kurdish Hizbullah have no doubt felt sympathy towards Iran because of their admiration for Iranian-style revolution in Turkey. The movement has given up militant operations after the government crackdown in 2000 and restructured itself with legitimate charity organizations, media outlets and businesses. It finally established the Free Cause Party (HÜDA-PAR) last December to compete against the ruling party as well as against the PKK-affiliated Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). There are reports that Iran has been funneling money to tap into the leadership of this organization.

In the meantime, Iran has been pursuing a sustained policy of expanding its sphere of influence in Turkish society using cultural and educational programs that promote hatred for Turkey’s pro-Western position. As always, these Iranian-financed outreach activities campaign on an anti-Western platform with the Palestine issue being exploited for political rhetoric. Not only are the Islamic publishing houses and conservative writers targeted by Iran, but also neo-nationalist and nationalist groups. Cultural attachés at the Iranian Consulate in İstanbul and the Iranian Embassy in Ankara were instructed by their bosses in Tehran to generously finance the visit of Turks who belong these groups to Iranian cities under the cover of book fairs, academic conferences and workshops. The aim is to expose Turks to Iranian political, religious and cultural propaganda. Recently, this effort also included financing a few think tanks in Turkey.

The legal cover for these cultural and educational activities was provided by the Iranian government, which has successfully convinced Ankara to sign a number of intergovernmental agreements during the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) governance in the past decade. The last comprehensive agreement Iran inked with Turkey was last year when former Education Minister of Turkey Ömer Dinçer and Iranian Education Minister Hamid Reza Haji Babai signed an agreement to cooperate in the field of education on June 19, 2012, in the Iranian capital of Tehran. After the deal was approved by Turkey’s Cabinet on Dec. 12, it was published in the Official Gazette on Jan. 23 as Law No. 4071. Iran has dramatically increased the number of scholars and students it sends to Turkey since then.

Using this framework agreement, Iran has mobilized its state institutions to strike deals with their counterparts in Turkey to make the best use of the opportunities offered by the deal. Most of these are protocol agreements that supposedly comply with the framework agreement. As such, they do not need Parliament’s approval, avoiding public scrutiny. On Jan. 27, only four days after the agreement was published in the Official Gazette, officials from Van Yüzüncü Yıl University in the eastern province of Van, which borders Iran, and the Iranian University of Tabriz signed a protocol to establish the Turkish-Iranian university. On Feb. 8, Tabriz-based Taba Elm International Institute signed a protocol with Giresun University in Turkey’s Black Sea region to exchange students. Iranian institutions have signed similar deals with universities in the eastern provinces of Erzurum and Ağrı as well. There are others that went unnoticed in the media.

Last but not least, Iranian intelligence has been using “pleasure marriages,” known as nikah al-mut’ah, which is a banned practice in Islam and in fact another name for prostitution, as bait to recruit sympathizers in Turkey. Iran has excelled in this practice of sex for luring people of influence in the Middle East by converting them into pro-Iranian advocates. The mut’ah practice, known as “sigheh” in Iran, that allows for sexual encounters with the blessing of a cleric even for an hour or one night is a commonly employed method for the Iranian regime to buy influence from visiting people of status. Some go to Iran under the pretense of attending a conference or having a medical check-up but are actually clients of this huge sex industry. This is one of the ways in which Iran has acquired influence in Iraq where some clerics and tribal leaders were treated with such entertainment during their frequent visits to Iran.

The same practice was also widely used in Iranian proxy state Syria under Alawite president Bashar al-Assad. It was not surprising to hear, for example, that the Syrian president’s senior advisor, Buthaina Shaaban, allegedly threatened to expose sex tapes involving rulers from Gulf countries in December of 2011. She reportedly told a visiting delegation that “officials from Gulf countries will be shown what trump-cards we have after we release their sex tapes to Internet websites.” Unfortunately a threat with a similar nature is now targeting a predominantly Sunni country, Turkey, as well. Through hundreds of front companies and foundations set up in Turkey, Iran is financing group tours to visit Iranian cities to expose Turks to this practice as well as to the overtly radical Iranian ideology. At the same time, using exchange programs, Iran has been sending academics and clerics to Turkey to advocate this practice as if it was sanctioned by Islam. There were reports, for example, that Iranian academics in universities located in Siirt, Erzurum and other places have been openly talking about this practice, creating strong resentment from Sunni residents.

Here is the punch-line, however: While there is a growing body of evidence indicating that Iran has been exploiting every opportunity to penetrate Turkish society and to gain greater influence for ill-intended purposes, it is difficult to understand and explain why the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has been facilitating Iranian clandestine attempts in that regard with comprehensive framework agreements. Is it because some pro-Iranian government officials who sympathize with Persian interests provide a cover for Iranian moves in Turkey under the pretext of friendship deals? This is a highly dangerous game that may come with a huge price tag for Turkish society.

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