"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
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
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
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
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
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.