Back in February, I wrote an analysis piece for Eurasianet that looked how their differing position regarding the crisis in Syria and political and economic competition in Iraq were helping cool down what had been warming relations between Turkey and Iran. The tension and rivalry between these two regional powerhouses would only sharpen in the coming months, analysts told me at the time, an assessment that is being reinforced by recent events.
For the last week, the Turkish press has carried several front page stories about an alleged Iranian intelligence ring that was captured after collecting information in eastern Turkey's Igdir region. From the Hurriyet Daily News's report about the arrests:
The operation was started in Iğdır after it was revealed that photos of the Iğdır Provincial Gendarmerie Command building were taken by people using a minibus with the license plate “04-D-3759.” Police stopped the vehicle on the outskirts of the city and detained two suspects of Iranian origin. The suspects, Shahram Zargham Kohei and Mohammed Reza Esmaeilpour Ali Malek were determined to have taken photos of strategically important security zones in the region.
During questioning, the suspects revealed that they had demanded information in return for money from a number of important figures from state institutions in Van’s Çaldıran district. It has also been revealed that information was collected about Turkey’s military institutions in Iğdır, the local governor’s office, and a number of firms, daily Radikal has reported.
Seven of the nine suspects who were detained on Aug. 31 as part of the spying investigation conducted by the Erzurum Public Prosecutor’s Office were arrested on the claim of spying for Iran. It was revealed that the suspects, who were scrutinized by the intelligence units for a year, transferred the information they obtained to Iranian intelligence service SAVAMA in return for money. Some Turkish citizens, who met the Iranian spies in Iran border and provided them information, were followed by the police step by step. In the photos taken during the followings, it was determined that T.A., who was arrested on the charge of spying, took photos of and gathered information about the strategically important areas determined before with Yaghoub Ahnou Khos, who fled to Iran during the operation, daily Hürriyet reported.
Another photo shows T.A. giving his information notes to a SAVAMA spy named Z.A on the Iranian border. The notes, which were written in T.A.’s own handwriting, gave information about the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) activities.
That Iranian intelligence operatives are working inside Turkey is clearly nothing new and something that must have been well known to the Turkish authorities (who, as the HDN story states, had been tracking the alleged Iranian spies in Igdir for a year). What makes the arrests in Igdir interesting, then, is how much they were publicized by Turkish officials, who even leaked to the press a surveillance video that shows one of the alleged Iranian intelligence operatives pumping a local for information about security installations in the area. Indeed, the arrests are already leading to an increased level of suspicion regarding Iranian activity in Turkey. Writing in Today's Zaman yesterday, columnist Kerim Balci, suggests even Iranian tourism agencies that have opened up in Istanbul should be considered carefully. Writes Balci:
There is nothing shameful in sending spies to neighboring countries. Modern states exchange apprehended spies and continue on with their normal diplomatic relations. Turkey should have -- I hope it does -- a fairly large number of intelligence agents in Iran, and it is most probable that within the next five years some of them will be arrested by the Iranians just to be used as bargaining chips for Iranian spies in Turkish jails. If Iran is conducting a larger operation in Turkey than Turkey is conducting in Iran, what can we do other than congratulate Teheran for being smarter and strategically deeper than Ankara?
The problem with Iranian spy-rings is that they are accompanied -- if not preceded -- by propagandist mullahs and financial institutions owned by Basij, the deep state of Iran.
Meanwhile, a report the other day in the New York Times, which claimed that Tehran was supplying weapons and perhaps even fighters to the Assad regime using Iraqi airspace, could not have gone down very well in Ankara and served to only further illustrate the stark differences between Turkey and Iran when it comes to Syria policy. With Turkey now openly hosting and supporting the rebel Free Syrian Army and Iran allegedly providing material and logistical support for Assad's brutal crackdown on the insurrection in his country, Ankara and Tehran's differences are starting to become more than simply rhetorical.