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IRAN -TURKEY RELATIONS:

The Subversion of a NATO State

"When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos."

Robert Oxton Bolt (British Playwright 1924-1995 )


After a three-quarters of a century hiatus, Turkey is returning to its roots, striving to resurrect its heritage and reestablish its historic importance. Ankara considers close strategic cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran to be the key to attaining these vital objectives. Once the hub of the great Caliphate - the Ottoman Empire was dismembered in the aftermath of the First World War. Subsequently, Turkey attempted to pursue Kemalism adopting a secularized and Westernized way of life in the hope of joining Europe. Even its contribution to NATO could not make Turkey be accepted by Europe. Consequently, Turkey of the mid 1990s made a profound change of course-giving up on the West, and looking eastward instead. Ankara purses a revival of its traditional leading role in an increasingly Islamic-ized Turkic World. Because of the Islamic factor predominating the political arena in Central Asia, Kemalist (secularized) Turkey requires a helping hand, a guide and a partner, in its surge into Central Asia and the Middle East.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, largely responsible for Turkey's rediscovery of Turkism and political Islam during the 1980s, is now crucial in facilitating Turkey's ascent. With its crucial geo-strategic location and access to Western hi-tech, Turkey is fast becoming an important member of the Tehran-led Islamic Bloc. Hence, the electoral success of the Islamist Refah Party is an expression of this profound evolution of Turkey, rather than a case of a populist leader - Necmetin Erbakan- guiding a country against its natural tendencies. Indeed, the original ground-breaking Turkish-Iranian agreement over Iraq was reached in the summer of 1995, when the thoroughly Westernized Mrs. Tansu Ciller was still the prime minister.

Nevertheless, Erbakan's rise to power since the fall of 1995 is a historic milestone in Turkey's return to pursuing its traditional policies in the context of an assertive Islamic Bloc. Of great importance is the transformation of Turkish-Iranian relations and strategic cooperation under Erbakan.

Tehran and the Rise of the Refah Party

The present Turkish-Iranian strategic cooperation is based on more than just ideological affinity and common perception of world affairs. It is grounded in both Erbakan's personal debt to Tehran, as well as specific undertakings by Tehran for the Rcfah Party. For over a decade now,the Iranian intelligence has been instrumental in helping the Turkish Islamists survive under adverse conditions - providing training in clandestine techniques and ability to withstand the Security Services. Tehran was the source for clandestine funding for Refah, as well as the massive expansion of mosques and religious institutions (mainly charities and schools) that won the Turkish population over.

Since the late 1980s, mullahs' activities were specifically aimed to bring the Turkish Islamists to power. By then, Tehran was encouraged by the growing "Islamic awareness" as reflected in the growing consumption of Islamic books, periodicals and cassettes, as well as the growing numbers of religious schools and mosques. Most significant was the growing role of Turkish youth in the movements calling for the return to Islamic values. Tehran observed that the growing numbers of mosque-goers were dominated by urban lower middle-class tradesmen - the most dynamic socio-political strata and the core of support for any Turkish government.

One reason for the Islamic revival was the propaganda and incitement campaign conducted by the clerical leadership in Tehran and Turkish Islamists. During the 1980s, the regime in Iran maintained several schools, mosques, bookstore and cultural centers in Turkey which not only catered to the more then a million Iranians then living in Turkey, but also served as a source for propaganda and agitation. Through these religious institutions, the clerics in Iran distributed huge quantities of Islamist material, both printed matter and cassettes, smuggled into Turkey.. By the late 1980s, Tehran's propaganda included leaflets attributed to Turkish lslamists calling for the establishment of an Islamic regime on order from Khomeyni.

A major development in the Islamicization of Turkey took place in late 1989, when Mohammad Reza Baqeri, a senior intelligence operative, became the Iranian Ambassador to Turkey. In Ankara, Bageri oversaw the completion of a major country study by Iranian intelligence. This 1989 study concluded that Turkey was ripe for adopting the Islamic Revolution, and that given the growing rates of popular return to Islam, lslamists could become the politically dominant force within 5-6 years [ 1994-1995].

On Bageri's urging, Tehran immediately embarked on the implementation of these recommendations. Sabri Hamadi, a senior intelligence officer then serving in Turkey, was put in charge of field operations to condition Turkey for Islamicization. He was so audacious, that he was expelled before the end of 1989. By then, however, Hamadi was already running intelligence networks involving some 15,000 Iranians residing in Turkey in both the distribution of Islamist propaganda and espionage. Some of these activities were financed via the 115 Iranian government companies operating in Turkey'. Despite the setback with Hamadi's expulsion, the Iranian campaign continued to expand. By mid 1990, Tehran was satisfied with the accumulating results.

A follow up study by Iranian intelligence (VAVAK) concluded that the "trend of Islamic fervor" in Turkey was definitely on the rise and irreversible. Following the immensely logical and sensible Iranian blue-print, the Turkish Islamists first concentrated on capitalizing on areas with large-scale Islamist revivalism to obtain localized political power, which, if successful, could be used as a basis for a surge on a national level.

Indeed, Refah had major achievements in the 1994 elections to local governments, regional councils and municipalities, including Ankara. Refah established a very successful track record in handling domestic and local issues. The Islamist local government administrations have proven relatively clean and corruption free. Their version of Islamic populism meant caring for the underprivileged and having their ear open to grassroots opinions and desires. Lavish Iranian support enabled Refah to implement many social programs. At the same time, the lslamists have refrained from enforcing strict Islamic codes or interference with the economy - thus proving that they are not 'crazy' as their opponent portrayed them to be.

Tehran's role in the Turkish Elections


And so, and in time, the assessment of VAVAK proved amazingly accurate. By 1995, there was no doubt in Tehran that the rise of Turkey's lslamists as a political force already reached the point they could conceivably assume power through popular support. Iranian Intelligence was mobilized for a final push. In the fall of 1995, Tehran proved crucial in engineering and financing Erbakan's electoral victory. However, not everything was smooth as the Turkish elections campaign was heating up. Refah was gaining in the polls. However, the widespread fear of the rapidly escalating Kurdish terrorism waged by the Syrian-sponsored PKK was sending many voters to side with the nationalist parties supported by the military.

Tehran came up with a solution. In early December 1995, VAVAK organized a secret meeting between Erbakan, a senior PKK official and Ali Reza, a senior VAVAK officer. In the meeting, Refah and the PKK signed an agreement according to which Refah paid the PKK US$ 100,000 to secure the electoral backint; of the Kurdish population. In return, the PKK promised to announce a unilateral truce, then enter into negotiations with a Refah-led government and agree to a form of autonomy (rather than the independence for which the Kurds have been fighting). Indeed, during the terrorism summit in Tehran in late June 1996 senior representatives of Refah and the PKK, including its
senior commander, demonstrated good relations. Tehran was the main beneficiary of this Refah-PKK deal. Back in December 1995, Erbakan promised Tehran in writing that once in power, Refah will pursue a regional policy in accordance with Tehran's strategic interests. Erbakan also committed the Turkish security and defense establishment to prevent the use of Turkish territory against Iran (a specific blow to US operations) and to joining Tehran on numerous "projects" from Bosnia to Chcchnya, as well as Central Asia.

Indeed, the December 25, 1995, parliamentary elections in Turkey justified the Iranian efforts. With all the votes counted, the Islamist Refah won with 21.32% of the votes. The Motherland Party (ANAP) came second with 19.66%, while Prime Minister Tansu Ciller's True Path Party (DYP) had 19.20%. After an intense period of political maneuvers, Erbakan was firmly established as a Prime Minister in a coalition government with Ciller's DYP.

The Emergence of Joint Strategy

There were immediate ramifications to the Erbakan-PKK deal. Under Iranian pressure, the PKK agreed to a marked reduction in violence against Turkey from all fronts except for Syria, where the Syrian intelligence ran its own Kurdish operations under the banner of the PKK. By then Turkish intelligence was training Syrian lslamists, mainly Mujahideen recruited in Bosnia, and running its own terrorist campaign in Syrian cities. Until the summer of 1996, Ankara continued to sponsor terrorism inside Syria in order to build counter-pressure to Damascus' continued support for PKK. This crisis built to the point of a massive deployment of Syrian forces near the Turkish border. However, a timely intervention by Tehran contained the escalation. Tehran appealed to Damascus to reach a compromise with Turkey, which eventually happened. Meanwhile, there was a distinct reliance on the Islamist factor in Turkish politics, and especially covert operations. Back in early 1996, Turkish intelligence cooperated with their Iranian counterparts in a major operation to modify the Islamist terrorist infrastructure in Bosnia-Herzegovina in order to subvert and violate the Dayton Agreements. The Turks, being NATO members and part of IFOR, contributed data, posted military guard over sensitive Mujahideen installations (keeping US and European forces away), and managed the clandestine movements of Iranian-controlled personnel throughout Bosnia. Moreover, Turkish intelligence organized for the evacuation and redeployment of Mujahideen, particularly organized units sponsored by Iran and Pakistan, via northern Cyprus. Among these evacuated were key terrorist commanders from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, other Persian Gulf states, as well as the Syrian Islamists. Most of these Mujahideen were deployed to Chechnya, Iran and Afghanistan.

The close operational cooperation between Turkish Intelligence, their Iranian and Pakistani counterparts, and the Mujahideen, served as the basis for new relationship of trust between Ankara and the militant lslamists. In late May 1996, Turkey hosted an international conference of leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and related terrorist organizations. The organizer of this semi-official gathering in Istanbul was Abdullah Ogal, the secretary general of Refah. Iranian senior intelligence officials were present in the conference, but kept a low profile in order to let the Turks demonstrate leadership. Erbakan called the conference the first stage in the establishment of an "Islamic Pact" soon to replace the "Atlantic Pact" [NATO]. Erbakan stressed Turkey's determination to consolidate and play a leading role in the "Islamic Pact" even at the expense of its current place in NATO.
Key Mile Stones

It was in this strategic environment that Erbakan visited Tehran in August 1996. The visit was choreographed to stress Turkey's solidarity with Iran
and defiance of the US. Ankara demonstrated its steadfastness by signing numerous agreements with Iran, including major energy deals, despite US protests and in violations of several US laws. Erbakan thus proved to Tehran that Ankara was serious about joining Islamist trend and participating in the surge into Central Asia.

Erbakan's visit was a milestone in the solidification ofTurkish-Iranian strategic relations and cooperation. The series of intimate and very frank exchanges between Erbakan and senior Turkish confidants and the Iranian leadership convinced Tehran of Erbakan's commitment to jointly pursue Islamist causes. Tehran also better understood the constraints imposed on Erbakan and how to avoid unnecessary troubles for him. The negative publicity given in the West to Erbakan's visit and particularly the hostile reaction from the US convinced Tehran of Ankara's commitment to common causes. Meanwhile, Erbakan and his closest confidants returned from Tehran convinced that Turkey's future is in pan-Turkism and Islamism. Subsequently, during the fall of 1996, both Ankara and Tehran worked to enhance the consolidation of an assertive Islamist doctrine for Turkey.

Meanwhile, political Turkey has been changing - especially the growing impact of popular Islamism on the Turkish political elite. Even the most senior politicians must flaunt their Islamic credentials. Indeed, even Mrs. Ciller, a former Prime Minister and a veteran champion of secularism and Western values, could not evade the Islamist impact. In the fall, Mrs. Ciller, now foreign minister, began to wear the hejab (Islamic head scarf), finger Islamic-style worry beads, and make frequent references to the Koran in public. She begins every speech with the traditional "Bismlllah..." It is not that Mrs. Ciller has suddenly become religious. She realized that this was the only way to survive and advance in Turkish politics, as well as retain popular support. And it is the existence of this socio-political environment that makes the rise of Erbakan of such far-reaching importance.

Presently, Turkey is integrated into the innermost Islamist circles. In early December, Tehran orchestrated a key trust-building session between Erbakan and the Islamist leadership. Three senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood - from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan - arrived in Turkey on a secret visit including a lengthy meeting with Erbakan. Although representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood had maintained communications with the Refah Party for almost two years,the early December session was uniquely important because of the level of participants and the sincerity of the discussions. Essentially, Erbakan set out to prove to his guests that the tenets of Turkey's strategy and political doctrine were Islamist. He also argued that Turkey can be trusted as a key partner of the Islamist trend. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood leaders were satisfied with Erbakan's argumentation, presentation and commitments. They were most encouraged by Erbakan's "satisfactory" report of Turkey's relations and defense cooperation with Israel.

The lingering importance of the Muslim Brotherhood's discussions with Erbakan is best reflected in Tehran's reaction. Iranian senior officials rushed to debrief and consult with the three leaders before Iran's President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani left for a major official visit to Turkey. The extraordinary importance accorded by Tehran to this visit could be seen from the large number of ministers, deputies, and bureaucrats in Hashemi-Rafsanjani's delegation. Official Tehran stressed the far reaching implications of the visit. "Iran and Turkey, the two powerful and influential countries of the region with outstanding economic potential and deep religious and cultural background, are experimenting cooperation tinder new conditions and circumstances." Official Tehran paid special attention to the strategic implications of the visit. "President Hashemi-Rafsanjani's visit to Turkey can entail strategicall" important results for the two countries as well as for the region," Tehran gloated, adding that "no doubt the outcome of the visit will not please Washington." Ankara also considered the visit to be a major event. Turkish officials called the visit "the beginning of a new era [in relations] with Iran" and a sign of the new intimate cooperation and "special relations" between the two countries. Long term political issues determined the framework of the discussions between Hashemi Rafsanjani and Erbakan, and their respective delegations. The Iranian objective was to help Ankara focus Turkish foreign policy on pan Turkism, as well as on finding practical ways to expedite Turkey's return to Central Asia. Tehran has a lot to gain from this drive because while Turkey has the technological and economic capabilities, the post Soviet revival in Central Asia is fueled by the return to Islam, and Turkey is too secular to fit the mold and its advocacy of pan-Turkism is still fledgling. Hence, Ankara needs Tehran's guiding hand and stamp of approval in order to be fully accepted by the local elites. Indeed, Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Erbakan worked out modalities for Iranian ort for the further integration of Turkey in Central Asia.

The key to the Turkish economic presence is a markedly expanded flow of Turkish goods eastward, and Central Asian oil/gas westward into the Turkish pipeline system - all of it via Iran. The main TurkishIranian economic programs constitute fronts for the attainment of joint political objectives. The several trade and economic agreements signed in Ankara fit this definition. Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Iran decided to focus not only on the supply and shipment of oil and natural gas, but more on international projects that will integrate Turkey, Iran and Central Asia into a single economic bloc - projects such as the construction of oil pipelines from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, via Iran, to Ceyhan in Turkey.

The other very important, though clandestine, issue discussed and resolved between Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Erbakan was the joint defense and intelligence cooperation. It is a most sensitive issue given Turkey's NATO membership. Erbakan assured Hashemi-Rafsanjani that Ankara is committed to their close cooperation even though US reaction could be fierce - an embargo will render most of the weapons in the Turkish military arsenal unusable. Meanwhile, Tehran assured Ankara that Iran not permit PKK and other terrorists to stay in or overate from Iranian territory.

In their discussions in Ankara, Erbakan assured Hashemi-Rafsanjani that he remains insistent that Turkey and Iran cooperate closely in defense matters. The practical matters were entrusted to the Iranian Deputy Defense Minister, Ahmad Vahidi, who accompanied Hashemi Rafsanjani in Ankara. Vahidi conducted lengthy secret talks with a group of Erbakan's advisors and confidants led by Sedat Celikdogan. The resolutions of these discussions were approved by both leaders and are considered the beginning of a profound bilateral cooperation in the defense arena.

One of the major programs agreed upon is the joint development and production of attack helicopters and tanks. In order to overcome the resistance of the Turkish military to such programs, Erbakan moved a key group of experts from the office of the Under Secretary for Defense Industries to the Prime Minster's Office. There, answering directly to Erbakan, Sedat Celikdogan became the head of this team of experts, and had begun working on this project prior to Hashemi Rafsanjani's visit. According to Celikdogan's plans, as presented to the Vahidi and his experts, Turkey intends to purchase 145 attack helicopters and between 500 and 1000 battle tanks from the joint production programs by the year 2000. The Iranian and Turkish experts already worked out the possible sources of technologies they require - mainly the PRC and Pakistan - in order to avoid the lingering threats of embargo by the West. Some of the other issues agreed upon between Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Erbakan were alluded to in early

January 1997 by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, then in Istanbul for a summit of eight Muslim countries. Velayati openly invited Turkey to enter a "defense pact" and increase the sharing of military information. He explained that Iran gained "tremendous experience in defense" during the Iran-Iraq war, and that Tehran would gladly share it with Turkey. In what amounts to an official response, Prime Minister Erbakan reiterated that Turkey was indeed interested in collaborating with Iran on issues of defense technology.

The Next Phase of Iranian Influence

In the long run, perhaps the most crucial outcome of Hashemi-Rafsanjani's visit to Turkey was the observation made by numerous Iranian officials that Ankara reminded them of Tehran on the eve of the Islamic Revolution. Hashemi-Rafsanjani's daughter, Faezeh, even said publicly that the "situation in Ankara is similar to that which existed in Iran during the final years of the Shah's regime." She repeated this statements several times. "l know Ankara very well and I follow its development closely. For this reason, 1 can retake a comparison with my country. Ankara is going through a stage very similar to the Shah period." Turkey, the Iranian leaders and experts are convinced, is on the verge of rejecting the West and joining the Islamist World. .And Tehran is determined to do the utmost to see this happen soon.

In early January 1997, there was additional confirmation of Tehran's assessment of the dynamics in Turkey. Citing a growing alarm about Western influence in Turkey, Erbakan's government announced it was moving to purge the Turkish language of all foreign influence, including the use of foreign words as business names and in advertisements. State Minister Mrs. Isilay Saygin, a member of Ciller's secular True Path party, announced that stiff fines would be levied against those who won't adhere. The proposed law also stipulates that TV and radio personalities who let "Westernisms" slip into their presentations or fail to speak "proper" Turkish could be banished from the airwaves. The new law and comparable measures still planned against foreign influence are widely supported throughout Turkey, with the exception of the Westernized urban elite.

Although it could take months before this proposal becomes law, the idea already enjoys ample political support, and the bill is already considered the first in a major campaign to revive the genuine Islamic and Turkic character of Turkey.

Meanwhile, and not for a good reason, Tehran is jubilant about the evolution of Turkish-Iranian relations and especially the long term strategic ramifications. In his January 10, 1997, sermon, Hashemi-Rafsanjani declared that as a result of his recent visit to Turkey "the might and greatness of Islam was underlined and it was also proven that our revolution is fresh and lively. Furthermore, we also witnessed the failure of the United States and its efforts to prevent two Islamic countries from increasing their cooperation and enjoying closer ties. The impotence (#global blasphemy, led by the United States, in imposing its will on the Islamic ummah was well and truly evident during this visit, in the course ofwhich the way was paved for cooperation between the two powerful Muslim countries of the region."

The Building Threat

Relations between Turkey and Iran have always been of crucial importance. This traditional alliance of the principal Muslim powers and most acculturated peoples who have dominated a predominantly Arab region has evolved over centuries. This close and special relationship survived the upheavals of the 20th Century - the spread of revolutionary spirits and two world wars. During the Cold War, the close alliance between Turkey and Iran peaked, but then collapsed in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the establishment of military rule in Turkey.

Even the crisis of the early 1980s could not keep Iran and Turkey
apart for a long time. Turkey was soon instrumental in the pushing of Iran toward Europe - opening doors for a growing economic cooperation and an expanding volume of trade. However, while as far as Europe was concerned Turkey was pulling Iran toward "moderation", the growing contacts between Turks and Iranians had a major effect on Turkey itself - deepening and expanding the Islamicization of Turkish society. Hence, starting the mid 1990s, there has been a concurrent dynamics in which Iran was pulling a receptive and cooperating Turkey into activism in the Islamic bloc that is eastwardly oriented and anti-West.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the resultant transformation of Turkey. After three-quarters of a century of a genuine effort to adopt Westernization, Turkey has begun to return to its roots - relive and pursue its heritage. Once the hub of the great Caliphate, Turkey was dissected in the aftermath of the First World War. Turkey has since attempted to pursue Kamelism - stressing Turkish nationalism and adopting a secularized Westernized way of life in the hope of joining Europe. Even the loyal and devoted contribution to NATO during the Cold War was not sufficient for Turkey to be accepted as an integral part of Europe.

By the 1990s, the Turks began a change of course and, within a few years, completed a full circle. Turkey of the mid 1990s has given up on the West and is looking eastwards - pursuing a revival of its traditional leading role in an increasingly Islamicized Turkic World. Because of the predominance of the Islamic factor in Central Asian politics, secularized Turkey requires a helping hand, a guide and a partner, in its surge into Central Asia and the Middle East. The Islamic Republic of Iran, largely responsible for 'turkey's rediscovery of Turkism and Islamism during the 1980s, is now crucial in facilitating Turkey's ascent.

With its crucial geo-strategic location and access to Western hi-tech, Turkey is fast becoming a significant member of the Tehran-led Islamic Bloc. Hence, the electoral success of the Islamist Refah Party is a genuine expression of this profound evolution of Turkey. Still, Erbakan's rise to power in the fall of 1995 is a historic milestone in Turkey's return to pursuing its traditional policies in the context of an assertive Islamic Bloc. This geo-strategic development could not have taken place without the active and massive help from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Therefore, the Islamist transformation of Turkey, with all its dire grand strategic ramifications, can become a major achievement of the clerical leadership in Tehran. If successful, Tehran will have achieved what the Communists have failed throughout the entire Cold War - to create a meaningful crack within NATO by turning around a veteran member state into taking positions against its allies. The staunch pro-Western positions of many at the top echelons of the Turkish Armed Forces give hope that Turkey may not be irreversibly lost.

However, Turkey's slide into pursuing Islamist policies has been expedited by the comprehensive support from Tehran. Although the Turkish military is watching the situation carefully, any attempt to stabilize Turkey without addressing the Iranian influence and subversion will be a temporary fix at best. Turkey's society will remain both vulnerable and susceptible to Islamist onslaught. Given the current state of popular return to Islam, even the unthinkable imposition of harsh, though pro-Western, military rule will not be able to reverse these trends.

Hence, the threat of Turkey's Islamicization will not be removed for as long as the Mullahs reign in Tehran. Given the strategic importance of both Turkey and Iran, it is imperative that the Mullahs be replaced by a nationalist pro-Western government, so that the traditional Turkish-Iranian alliance will return to what it used to be - a primary stabilizing factor in a turbulent region and a bridge to the West.

 



 

 

 

 


 

 






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