Turkish-Iranian warming loses credibility as claims of terrorism emerge

Iranian FM Salehi (L) faced questions about claims of possible attacks by the Quds Force, an Iranian military unit, in Turkey during a joint press conference with FM Davuto?lu in Ankara last week. (PHOTO AA, CEM ÖKSÜZ) 22 January 2012 / GÖZDE NUR DONAT, ?STANBUL While diplomatic talks between Iran and Turkey continue in January, intelligence that an Iranian military unit is preparing to organize attacks in Turkey is leading to controversy in the Turkish media, adding to suspicions over growing tension in Iranian-Turkish relations over a conflict-ridden Middle East.
On Tuesday, Turkish intelligence units warned that the Quds Force, a special foreign operations unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard — the country’s “elite military force” tasked with protecting the Islamic order in the country — plans to send a group to Turkey to carry out a series of armed assaults that may include a bomb attack on the US Embassy or Consulate General. The Quds Force is infamous for its role in attempting to export Iran’s Islamic revolution to other countries through the instigation of chaos and by acting as the overseas branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The intelligence on the arrival of the Quds Force came amid increasing diplomacy traffic between Iran and Turkey, calling the recent positive developments in Iranian-Turkish relations into question. Iran, facing serious economic sanctions from Western powers on its controversial nuclear program, finally started last week to send positive messages on negotiations with Western powers. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi encouraged during his visit to Ankara on Wednesday Turkey to play the role of facilitator in its nuclear talks with Western powers. While Iranian-Turkish rapprochement appears to be at the forefront of these developments, the speculation on possible attacks called the recent warming into question.

However, for senior Iranian officials and others of lower-rank to adopt conflicting positions is not a new thing in Iranian politics. Turkey has confronted such conflicting views before, on the issue of Turkey’s allowance of a NATO missile-defense shield on its territory, which is an early-warning system that aims to protect NATO members from external threats.

“Iran will target NATO’s missile-defense installations in Turkey if the US or Israel attacks the Islamic republic,” Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ aerospace division, said on Nov.26. But days after, Salehi said these statements do not reflect the official Iranian position and asked Turkey to take seriously only information coming from top Iranian officials in office.

The NATO plan was seen as a huge threat by Iran, which claims the defense shield’s function is to support a speculated Israeli plan to wage war against Iran. Iranian claims are based on an Israeli warning of a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear program. Israel, along with the US and its Western allies, thinks Iran is trying to produce atomic weapons.

Hasan Selim Özertem, a researcher on energy security at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), referring to the conflicting remarks of different Iranian actors, claims “Iran poses asymmetrical threats, which do not come necessarily from state representatives,” which means those threats are either acknowledged or tolerated by those at the top of the Iranian state, in an analysis posted online on the USAK website.

In a related and very recent example on asymmetrical threats, Quds Force reiterated its sensational statements on Thursday. Commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Brig. Gen. Qasem Soleimani has said that the Islamic Republic controls “one way or another” over Iraq and south Lebanon and that Tehran is capable of influencing the advent of Islamist governments in order to fight “arrogant” powers, Iran-based ISNA student agency reported on Thursday.

At the same time, even though Iranian-Turkish diplomatic talks send positive messages, the threats of the arrival of the Quds Force calls to mind a similar two-sided approach. Moreover, political analysts mention similar threats coming from other pro-Iranian groups in Turkey, including the Kurdish Hizbullah.

The Kurdish Hizbullah, an extreme terror organization, issued a statement on Tuesday, indicating it is returning to the political arena. “It is well-known that the Kurdish Hizbullah has always been active in the Kurdish region and in ?stanbul and other metropolises,” Emre Uslu, a columnist for the Taraf and Today’s Zaman dailies, reported, reflecting on a possibility that “Iran wants to send a message to Turkey that there are many inactive cells in Turkey that could destabilize the country.”

Furthermore, columnist Fikret Ertan from the Zaman daily affirms that Iran frequently uses Iran-affiliated radical groups or tolerates their terrorist activities, “enabling them to threaten Iran’s rivals that it cannot attack openly.” Ertan also claimed Iran-based terrorist groups have links to unsolved murders, such as that of late journalist U?ur Mumcu, in Turkey throughout the 1990’s.

Referring to Revolutionary Guards commander Hajizadeh’s warning against Turkey on the deployment of the NATO defense shield, “Salehi rejected the threats, however, he does not denounce them,” Ertan said, explaining the state’s tolerance towards those state-related groups lacking political power. He added Turkish security officers should stay aware of the recent intelligence on the Quds Force, pointing to the rivalry between Iran and Turkey over influence in the Middle East, over which they cannot negotiate.

Frictions in Turkish-Iranian relations

A power struggle between the two countries is seen as the reason behind the covert tension. Both seek to extend their area of influence in the Middle East to fill the political vacuum in destabilized countries, top among them Syria and Iraq.

Turkey, acting in concert with the European Union and other Western powers, imposed sanctions on Syria in November, hoping to force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to end a bloody crackdown against his own people that began in May or to resign. However, Iran supports the current Syrian government unconditionally. Shiite Iran, which always supports Shiite-dominated political blocs in the Middle East, does not risk losing Assad’s Alawite government, which provides Iran with an important sphere of influence in Syria, a Sunni majority country.

Bayram Sinkaya, a lecturer in the department of international relations of Ankara’s Y?ld?r?m Beyaz?t University and a Middle East analyst with the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), claimed that Iran needs Assad in Syria, saying that it could not reap any benefits from the Arab Spring in the Middle East. “The Arab revolutions did not spread to the Gulf states, not result in a regime change in anti-Iran administrations in those countries. But Assad’s government, an important Iranian ally, may come to an end with the Arab awakening spreading into Syria,” he asserted, saying that a friendly government in Syria is important in order to not be isolated in the region.

Working to create a strong Shiite bloc, Iran is encouraging the predominantly Shiite Iraqi government to monopolize power. Turkey, on the other hand, claims it dismisses sectarian differences in its approach to the Middle East. Allowing Iran to take a hold of Iraq would deal a major blow to Turkey, which froze its ties with Syria by imposing economic and arms sanctions on the country’s present government. Iraq is of primary importance to Turkey, being its main trading partner as well as a gateway to the rest of the Middle East in the absence of any ties with Syria.

Driven by its natural tendency to expand and fearing the implications of the Arab revolutions right now, Iran is trying to quickly fill the political vacuum in Iraq, fortify its position there and increase its influence following US withdrawal from the country. One of the most important goals right now for Tehran in light of regional developments is to strengthen its buffer zone — frequently dubbed the Shiite Crescent. It is obvious in light of the Syrian case that Iran is trying to push for a Shiite bloc (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon).

Sinkaya says solidifying ideological and sectarian differences between Sunni Turkey –with a government cooperating with Western powers, spreading the values of “liberal Islam” and supporting more moderate movements in the Middle East — and Shiite Iran, with its strong anti-Western stance and backing of radical movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah in the region, will lead to a rise in Iranian threats against Turkey in the long-term, increasing the likelihood of attacks by Iranian-affiliated radical groups such as the Quds Force in Turkey.

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