Recent protests exposed, among other things, the depth of Iranian infiltration into Turkey as well as major weaknesses in the counterintelligence shield of the Turkish spy agency. Although the protests started out of environmental concerns over a green space in a central district of İstanbul, they were quickly hijacked by illicit and illegal groups that resorted to violence, vandalism and destruction. This development has revealed a security vulnerability in Turkish society that might be easily exploited by Iranian sleeper cells in Turkey. In fact, that is exactly what had happened in the three-week-long protest waves, during which about a dozen Iranian agents who were trying to turn rallies into violent anti-government demonstrations were caught by the police.
The Iranian secret service usually disguises agents as banking and finance industry officials to bankroll worldwide terror networks, and most of the key members in Iranian-owned banks and their branches abroad are staffed by operatives. Tehran also extensively use spies embedded in the travel and hospitality industry to link up with new recruits and promote Persian and extremist Shiite ideology through culture and tourism. It provides diplomatic status to some operatives to gain relatively unhindered access to government circles in host countries. The recent events in Turkey have unearthed a little-known aspect of a sinister campaign targeting Turkey where Iranian agents whose identities were blown were using student or refugee status as cover.
When one Iranian national, identified as M.M., was picked up by the police in Ankara during his lead involvement in a violent confrontation with the riot police, the suspect was carrying an asylum applicant card filed with the Turkish Ministry of the Interior. His religion was recorded as Christian and he was supposedly seeking resettlement in a third country. Why would a Christian who claims to be persecuted by the Iranian regime and waiting for repatriation to another country be involved in a host country’s protests against the government? Many red flags were raised during his questioning in police custody, and he was immediately deported to Iran following the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s coordination with the Iranian side. The whole matter was by and large kept from the press in order to prevent a backlash against Iran in the Turkish public and risk a diplomatic brawl between the two neighbors.
This was just one example of how Iranian intelligence has been planting sleeper agents among refugees and asylum seekers who escape from Iran to evade persecution and prosecution in order to have a better life with improved economic conditions. Since it is difficult to distinguish legitimate non-Muslim minority or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people from spies, Iranian intelligence often uses them as a cover to infiltrate Turkey and third countries. I already wrote on how Iranian intelligence operatives smuggled Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, into Turkey using human trafficking/illegal migration routes back in February to pit Turkey against the US while inviting the wrath of the al-Qaeda terror network towards Turkey. Jordanians saved the day when Abu Ghaith was picked up by the Americans while supposedly he was en route to Kuwait, his native country, from Turkey.
Iran’s attempt to derail an environmental protest and try to turn it into social upheaval as part of the ‘Turkish Spring” campaign is not surprising, given that Iran provided significant logistical support to the campaign of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in launching large-scale attacks in urban centers in the Southeast of Turkey last year in order to create a sort of “Kurdish Spring” perception for Turkey. Outraged by the Iranian involvement in PKK terror, former Turkish Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin had to detail publicly how PKK militants were provided shelter, money and safe haven by Iran in the Şehidan camp in its own territory, across from the Şemdinli district of the Turkish province of Hakkari. Turkish law enforcement officials believe they have picked up traces of Iran’s fingerprints in a terror attack on the US Embassy in February by the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) in Ankara as well as in twin bombing attacks by DHKP/C-affiliated terror groups in the border town of Reyhanlı, where 53 were killed last month. Over the years, Iran has indirectly contracted Syrian intelligence to nurture and nourish these ultra-leftist groups to try to destabilize regional arch-foe Turkey.
When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on June 12 that the government received credible intelligence on a planned disturbance in Turkey three months ago, he was actually referring to a plot hatched by Iran through Syrian intelligence proxies. The information indicated that there will be a major incident (bombing or assassination of key figures) to pit Turkey’s Alevi Muslim community against Sunnis with the hope that it would lead to sectarian conflict in Turkey. Erdoğan admitted that he was not expecting this to be ignited from an environmental protest for which he ridiculed participants as ‘marauders’ at the outset. When the militants from leftist organizations including the DHKP/C escalated protests, Erdoğan realized the gravity of the situation and decided to fight back with an equally belligerent and defiant tone. His harsh rhetoric and brinkmanship policy may be a risky proposition considering that Iran has started to gain some ground in the larger Alevi community in Turkey.
It is no secret that Iran has cultivated influence in both Kurdish and leftist terror organizations in Turkey using strains of Alawite Arabs (Nusayri) and Turkish Alevis that long existed in the leadership composition of these terror groups. The larger Alevi community, which is ethnically Turkish and despises Iranian politicized Shiite ideology, has maintained its distance from Iranian overtures for decades. Although they are disparate groups, Alevis predominantly display secular and liberal characteristics. The Turkish government’s strong position to the Syrian regime led by Alawites and its support for the mainly Sunni opposition seemed to have pushed Alevis closer to the Iranian orbit. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and its Alevi leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s harsh rebuke towards Erdoğan’s policies have also contributed to this shift in the Alevi community. As a result, what seems to be a marginal threat to Turkey’s national security has now turned into a potentially major challenge that can be exploited by Iran to weaken Turkey.
The latest information I picked up from the intelligence community this week indicated that Iranian clerics have been canvassing Alevi neighborhoods across Turkey. Authorities are especially worried that these clerics posing as mele, an Arabic word used by Kurds in Turkey to refer to highly respected mullahs, may have a secret agenda in the predominantly Kurdish regions of the Southeast. These Iranian clerics aim to build stronger bonds between Anatolian Alevism and Iranian Shiite ideology, even though there is no resemblance between the two. This is not out of brotherly love or good neighborly ties. Judging by the revelations from the head of the Turkmen Alevi Bektaşi Association, Özdemir Özdemir, this week, it is quite a chilling fact that Iran is preparing the groundwork for sectarian war in Turkey. Özdemir disclosed that more than 700 Alevi dedes, or spiritual leaders, have had meetings with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei as well as commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards over the past three years for what he called a campaign to foment conflict between Alevis and Sunnis in Turkey. He underlined that the recent Gezi Park demonstrations are also part of Iran’s attempts to stir up sectarian agitation in Turkey. He said Iran has set up three associations and one foundation in Turkey that look as if they are Alevi organizations. “But they have nothing to do with Alevi society. What they do is take Alevi dedes to Iran’s city of Qum to use them for their plans,” he explained.
All this indicates that the Turkish government should be more vigilant than ever over Iranian activities and hasten the process of addressing Alevi demands, including the recognition of their places of worship (cemevi) and the provision of fair-share subsidies from taxpayers’ money. Alevis, who number over 10 million, should be able to establish and train their own clergy and the government should provide financial support for that. At the same time, the Turkish government must talk tough with the Iranian government and make clear that these subversive activities of Iranian intelligence can no longer be tolerated.