Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament in Ankara on May 7, 2013. Photo by Reuters
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The Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday declined to comment on a Washington Post report saying that Turkey deliberately blew the cover of a Mossad spy ring working inside Iran in early 2012, thereby dealing a significant blow to Israeli intelligence gathering about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported on Thursday that Israel used to run part of its Iranian spy network out of Turkey, giving Turkish secret services the opportunity to monitor their movements. The paper quoted United States officials as saying Israel believed the Turks would never turn on the Jewish state after years of cooperation.

But in early 2012, it said, Ankara gave Tehran the identities of up to 10 Iranians who had traveled to Turkey to meet Israeli spies, resulting in a “significant” loss of intelligence.

In April 2012, Iran announced that it had broken up a large Israeli spy network and arrested 15 suspects. It’s not clear if this was connected to the alleged Turkish leak.

Officials in Ankara, speaking on condition they not be named, termed the report an attempt to discredit Turkey by foreign powers uncomfortable with its growing influence in the Middle East.

The Washington Post article was the second American report in as many weeks to accuse Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan of transferring sensitive intelligence information to Iran. The earlier article was published in the Wall Street Journal last week.

But despite this and other, earlier accusations against Fidan, Mossad chief Tamir Pardo met with him a number of times, according to media reports.

Pardo’s predecessor, Meir Dagan, had serious reservations about Fidan, charging that Fidan effectively functioned as an Iranian agent. Dagan managed to convince former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who, shortly after Israel’s botched raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza in May 2010, publicly voiced concern that Turkey could share Israeli intelligence secrets with Iran.

“There are quite a few secrets of ours (entrusted to Turkey) and the thought that they could become open to the Iranians over the next several months ... is quite disturbing,” Army Radio quoted Barak as saying in August 2010.

But not everyone in Israel’s intelligence community agreed and, after taking office in January 2011, Pardo apparently adopted the opposite view and reestablished ties with Fidan.

David Meidan, who formerly headed the Mossad’s foreign relations division and later served as the government’s special envoy in negotiations with Hamas for the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, also maintained contact with Fidan, and even got him to persuade Ankara to accept some of the Palestinian prisoners freed in exchange for Shalit but barred from returning to either Gaza or the West Bank.

In November 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, Pardo and Fidan met twice in Cairo to discuss efforts to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, according to reports in the Turkish media. The meetings were revealed in a press briefing by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Additionally, in June this year, the Turkish paper Hurriyet Daily News reported that Pardo had made a secret trip to Ankara to meet with Fidan and even asked Fidan to arrange him a meeting with Erdogan. According to Hurriyet, the June 10 meeting dealt with Iran’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and Israeli-Turkish intelligence cooperation on the situation in Syria – topics one wouldn’t necessarily expect to see discussed if Israel considered Fidan an Iranian agent.

The Washington Post allegation angered officials in Ankara, already on the defensive after the Wall Street Journal article last week. A senior official from Erdogan's ruling AK Party said such accusations were part of a deliberate attempt to discredit Turkey and undermine its role in the region, following the election of new Iranian President Hassan Rohani.

“Turkey is a regional power and there are power centers which are uncomfortable with this ... Stories like these are part of a campaign,” the official said, asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. “It's clear the aim of some is to spoil the moderate political atmosphere after Rohani's election ... and to neutralize Turkey, which contributes to solving problems in the region and which has a relationship with Iran.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, while also declining to comment on the Washington Post report, told Israel Radio that relations with Turkey were “very complex.” “The Turks made a strategic decision ... to seek the leadership of our region, in the Middle East, and they chose the convenient anti-Israeli card in order to build up leadership,” he told the station.

U.S. President Barack Obama tried to broker reconciliation between Turkey and Israel in March, persuading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apologize for the botched 2010 raid. But Israeli officials said subsequent attempts to agree on a deal to compensate families of those killed in the raid had floundered.

“The only thing that we have achieved since March is to show the Americans that Erdogan is not remotely interested in reconciliation,” said an Israeli diplomat, who declined to be named, given the sensitivity surrounding the issue.