COMMENTARY : Turkey – Iran: From Constructive Competition to Spy Wars

by Prof. Ihsan Bal – Journal of Turkish Weekly

6.9.2012 – Historical literature is rich with accounts of rivalry between Turkey and Iran. According to some specialist historians, this rivalry has seldom led to bloodstained battles; some even argue that there have been no battles at all between the two sides for the last four centuries. It may seem unnecessary to worry about Iran’s attitudes toward Turkey in the recent days when one evaluates the state of affairs as described above. But this assumption may only be valid if the conventional definition of war is limited to battlefields directly between militaries as our only reference point.

However, we face a totally different reality when we consider the fact that contemporary wars are waged through various methods such as proxy wars, psychological warfare, covert operations and intelligence. Especially when the recent news about the controversy around “tens of Iranian spies operating in Turkey and some of them being entrapped after tiresome chasing” is scrutinized, it will be manifested clearly that Iran has brought the rivalry to the point of vigilantism.

Even though Turkish politicians usually keep to the good side of Iran and earnestly refrain from provocations and attitudes which may antagonize Iran, it is hard to claim that their counterparts on the other side of the border display the same kind of sensitivity.

Iranian allegations with a raised tone directed toward Turkey have become a usual event, especially over the last two years. In that respect, we are familiar to some extent with public and government officials in Tehran making threatening statements.

Why Are Iranian Spies Fooling Around in Turkey?

The thing that brings down the relations between Turkey and Iran to dire and tragic levels is such a quarrelsome discourse somehow being operationalized on the field. Iran being in charge of the dramatic terrorist events increasing in number around Hakkari, Semdinli, Cukurca, Yuksekova, and Van last month, and even the verification of the relevant suspicion through findings secured from arrested militants, proves the suspicion concerning Iran to be well-founded. Moreover, sequential confessions received from these militants through statements affirming one another regarding the claim that the PKK uses military camps in Iran make explicit the severity of the situation.

The more depressing aspect of the issue is that investigations revealed that Iranian spies, who were caught thanks to intricate operations, were actually in contact with PKK militants and met them occasionally in Turkey, besides locating various military facilities and security points throughout Turkey.

Competition for Regional Leadership

Iran going beyond propaganda wars and taking negative action on the grounds of rivalry with Turkey certainly bears a special meaning. Above all, from Tehran’s point of view, Turkey is considered its most significant regional rival throughout the Middle East, particularly in Syria as well Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. It seems as if Turkey’s obvious superiority in economic and productive diversity and the echo of its growing soft power strongly annoys Iran. Therefore Iran’s efforts to lift the rivalry to a level of security risk with intelligence wars intensify day by day. Furthermore, such efforts are made public with an increasing amount of evidence revealed one after the other.

We should be calm and sensible while analyzing the course of events and the current state of affairs between Turkey and Iran, which we have supported at the expense of baffling even our allies in the United Nations Security Council.

The lion’s share of work in correctly conducting an analysis as described above and putting together a report concerning the recent era of relations between Turkey and Iran should certainly be undertaken by the (Turkish) National Intelligence Organization (MIT). We do not have to maintain a love-hate relationship with Iran, but we need real data more than ever to develop a consistent foreign policy. Most particularly, at such a time when the PKK is getting both ill-tempered and preparing for extensive terrorist attacks throughout autumn, both preventing such events and decoding covert operations while reading the background of the Syrian crisis like a book, necessitate in-depth endeavors and extensive backup together with realistic security analyses on the part of intelligence units.

*Turkish version of this article was initially published in Haberturk Newspaper on 3 September 2012.