Analysis |

Turkey Becomes a Vital Arm in the Israel-Iran Conflict

While Tehran’s targets in Turkey were ‘just’ Iranian nationals or opposition figures who fled, Turkey could settle the score quietly – but with Iran targeting Israelis on Turkish soil, Ankara needs to take a firm and open stance

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the 15th Summit of Economic Cooperation Organization in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in November.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the 15th Summit of Economic Cooperation Organization in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in November.Credit: TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVI
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Shortly after May's “historic” visit to Israel by Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Israel issued a severe travel warning to Turkey. The Turkish foreign office was surprised and furious.

“Why must such a warning be made publicly? These threats can be fought behind the scenes. We’ve done it before in cooperation between our intelligence services, and we’ve continued with the intelligence cooperation even now,” a senior Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs official told Haaretz at the time.

Some in the Turkish government attributed the travel warning to Israel’s desire to harm Turkish tourism, which would worsen the country’s economic crisis. The Israeli and Turkish foreign ministries held many talks to clarify the matter, as did the Mossad and its Turkish counterpart, headed by Hakan Fidan, who maintained working relations with Israel even during the period in which the countries severed ties.

When a new, grave travel warning was issued this week, accompanied by a call to Israelis already in Turkey to return home, Ankara was ready. According to media reports, information passed by the Mossad to Turkey led to the capture of a squad planning to commit terror attacks against and murder Israelis visiting Turkey, as revenge for the assassination of scientists and Revolutionary Guards Corps members attributed to Israel.

This is not the first time cooperation between the two countries’ intelligence arms prevented Iranian terrorism on Turkish soil. In February a plot to murder Israeli-Turkish businessman Yair Geller was foiled, and shortly thereafter Turkey arrested a cell of Iranian agents and Turkish citizens planning to commit other assassinations.

The activities of Iranian agents in Turkey are not limited to Israeli targets. Last year, Turkish authorities arrested the head of an Iranian drug-trafficking gang. Eleven others were arrested along with him, some of whom are connected to Iranian intelligence – and according to suspicions, were collecting intel and planning the murder of Iranian opposition figures residing in Turkey.

Mourners gather around the coffin of Iran's Revolutionary Guards colonel Sayyad Khodai during a funeral procession at Imam Hussein square in Tehran, in May 24.Credit: ATTA KENARE - AFP

Turkish intelligence are familiar with the modus operandi of mobilizing Iranian-Turkish crime gangs for intelligence purposes. Tracking these gangs has led last year to the arrest of an Iranian national, Mohammad Reza Zada, suspected of involvement and planning of the murder of Iranian opposition leader Masoud Molavi in 2019. Some three months later, Turkey arrested eight people, including two Iranian agents, for attempting to kidnap a former Iranian soldier who fled to Turkey. Iran denies any connection to these gangs, whereas Turkey can treat them, publicly at least, as “ordinary” criminal incidents which do not require harsh diplomatic steps against Iran.

As long as Iran’s marks in Turkey were “just” Iranian citizens fleeing the regime or active opposition figures, Ankara conducted its scorekeeping with Tehran through covert intelligence and diplomatic channels. But with Turkey developing as an arena for Iran to strike Israel, Turkey is forced to take a public and firm position. These Iranian operations not only compromise Turkey’s sovereignty, they jeopardize Turkey’s plans to renew and restore its relations with Israel, and at the same time throws fuel on the already fiery tensions between Turkey and Iran.

These tensions reached their apex recently against the backdrop of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s explicit intentions to embark on another military operation – the fourth to date – in Syrian territory, in order to realize his ambition of creating a “security zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border. The goal is to occupy an area 30 kilometers deep, and remove the Syrian Kurdish forces from it, which Turkey labels “terror organizations.”

This plan, talked up by Erdogan at every opportunity, has created an “alliance” of opposition between Iran and the United States. Washington, which still regards the Kurds as loyal allies who enjoy its economic and military aid, has made it clear to Erdogan in no uncertain terms that it opposes any military action that might harm the Kurds.

Iran, for its part, fears that Turkey may invade areas near Aleppo and push out the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias which control the city’s environs, especially the Shi’ite villages al-Zahraa and Nubl. Iran has recently beefed up its militia array in the area as a warning to Turkey that it will not shy away from confrontation should its forces approach the Iranian-controlled zone. The Turkish media are already referring to a violent confrontation between Turkey and Iran in Syria as a realistic possibility, and yet such reports must be taken with a grain of salt, as it is in the interest of the Turkish regime, which currently controls most media organs, to broadcast threats as a means of deterring Iran.

The tensions between Iran and Turkey in Syria come alongside Iran’s constant suspicions about Turkey’s intentions in the southern Caucasus, and particularly in Azerbaijan. Iran gnashed its teeth when, during the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey and Israel formed an alliance which, Iran claims, delivered victory to Azerbaijan.

While Turkey views the Caucasian countries as its natural sphere of influence due to cultural and historical ties, Iran fears that these countries will become a base for attacks against it, with Turkish aid. This fear only grows in light of the rapprochement and renewed ties between Israel and Turkey, and the re-entry of Turkey into the heart of the Arab Middle East, through its close relations with the United Arab Emirates and with Saudi Arabia.

The new tapestry of Turkey’s regional connections and ties with Israel – and its deteriorating relations with Iran – turn Turkey into a vital arm in Israel’s struggle against Iranian terror. This is not a binary relationship, where an alliance with Israel means cutting Turkish-Iranian ties. Turkey still views Iran as an important economic partner and a central component in its foreign policy, which seeks strong relations with all countries in the region. But the United States is trying to establish a regional defensive alliance against Iran, and President Joe Biden has made it clear that one of the main reasons for his Middle East visit next month is Israel’s security. Ankara will not want to be excluded from this alliance, and it expects Israel to do its part to help Turkey become a part of it, and thereby help restore its relations with Washington.

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