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Erdoğan’s Turkey and Iranian Intelligence

September 23, 2014

Western concerns have mounted in recent years as Turkey, once a NATO stalwart, has drifted into an increasingly Islamist orientation, in both foreign and domestic policy, under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been prime minister since 2003 and was just elected Turkey’s president. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has become increasingly repressive at home, with scores of jailed journalists and other secularists, many of them top military officers, who have run afoul of the AKP and its Islamist policies. Yet whatever misgivings exist about Ankara’s atmosphere of domestic repression, it’s Erdoğan’s worrying tendencies in foreign policy — a deliberate strategic turn away from the West combined with obvious affection for revolutionary Iran — that have led to serious concerns in NATO and beyond.

The transformation of Turkey, a frontline state which possesses the second-largest army in the Atlantic Alliance, into something like a frenemy on a good day, from any Western viewpoint, has led to awkward questions about what’s really going on in Ankara. These have been asked for years, with whispers mounting about covert Iranian influence at the highest levels of politics and security in Turkey, but it’s been easy to dismiss much of this as evidence-free conspiracy-mongering of the sort beloved by Turks of all political colorations. Yet there is now convincing proof that Tehran indeed has a disturbing degree of secret influence in Turkey’s ruling circles.

There’s no small irony in this, as Erdoğan’s governance has feasted upon allegations of a Turkish “deep state,” a shadowy cabal of secularists termed Ergenekon that the AKP claims have been pulling the secret strings in Ankara for decades. Belief in this “deep state” has provided the AKP with the excuse to jail and otherwise harass hundreds of political foes who deeply oppose the country’s Islamist turn under Erdoğan. Yet it turns out that Turkey’s real “secret team” is the AKP’s own, which serves the party’s religiously-based agenda and is tightly connected to Iranian intelligence.

The key player in this plot is a shadowy terrorist group termed Tawhid-Salam that goes back to the mid-1990s and has been blamed for several terrorist incidents, including the 2011 bombing of the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, which wounded several people, as well as a thwarted bombing of the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, in early 2012. Tawhid-Salam, which also goes by the revealing name “Jerusalem Army,” has long been believed to be a front for Iranian intelligence, particularly its most feared component, the elite Quds (Jerusalem) Force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran), which handles covert action abroad, including terrorism in many countries. It also is believed to be behind the murders of several anti-Tehran activists in Turkey in the 1990’s, using Tawhid-Salam as a cut-out.

For years, Turkish investigators who have tried to determine who stands behind Tawhid-Salam haven’t gotten very far, meeting obstruction at every turn, reportedly from the highest levels in Ankara, leading to suspicions that Erdoğan and the AKP have something to hide. In recent months, however, the terror group’s covert mask has begun to fall, thanks to mounting evidence that Iran indeed is pulling the strings behind Tawhid-Salam, which plays a key role in the Quds Force’s global terror campaign against Israel and Western interests.

Similarly, Tawhid-Salam operatives have been observed surveilling an important NATO radar base in Turkey, a sensitive site that monitors possible Iranian missile launches, while other members of the group were witnessed conducting surveillance on the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, apparently in preparation for a possible terrorist attack. The group’s interest in nuclear research materials, discovered during a raid on a Tawhid-Salam safehouse, caused notable alarm in certain circles. Yet, despite the fact that Turkish counterintelligence has repeatedly witnessed Tawhid-Salam members meeting with known Qods Force operatives, nothing was ever done to crack down on the group.

This may have something to do with the fact that Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish intelligence, is apparently on the Pasdaran payroll too, and may have secret ties to Tehran going back almost twenty years. Rumors about Fidan, a member of Erdoğan’s inner circle, who has headed the country’s powerful National Intelligence Organization (MİT) since 2010, have swirled in counterintelligence services worldwide for years. Israeli intelligence in particular, which once had a close relationship with MİT, has long regarded Fidan as Tehran’s man, and has curtailed its intelligence cooperation with Turkey commensurately, believing that all information shared with Fidan was going to Iran.

Privately, U.S. intelligence officials too have worried about Fidan’s secret ties, not least because MİT includes Turkey’s powerful signals intelligence (SIGINT) service, which has partnered with NATO for decades, including the National Security Agency. As an NSA document stolen and leaked by Edward Snowden explained: “U.S. intelligence reporting in recent years indicates possible Iranian connections with Dr. Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT/SIB. The possible impact of these connections to the US SIGINT relationship is unknown at this time.”

With Hakan providing top-cover, it’s no surprise that Turkish investigations into Tawhid-Salam never get very far. Other top figures assessed as being part of the conspiracy include Interior Minister Efkan Ala and ruling AKP spokesperson Beşir Atalay. Officials who possess hard evidence of ties between the group and Tehran’s spies — including video and audio surveillance in abundance, as well as the testimony of Tawhid-Salam members who have defected to the police — have found themselves thwarted, harassed, and even jailed by the AKP. In a typical case, Ali Fuat Yılmazer, former head of the Istanbul police’s intelligence unit, conducted an extensive investigation that revealed Tawhid-Salam had penetrated the Turkish government and the AKP at the highest levels, and was a tool of the Pasdaran. For this, he was thrown in jail on trumped-up charges. 

Surveillance video still showing a meeting in İstanbul between a Tawhid-Salam member and Naser Ghafari, the top representative of the Quds Force in Turkey.

Surveillance video still showing a meeting in İstanbul between a Tawhid-Salam member and Naser Ghafari, the top representative of the Quds Force in Turkey.

Members of the opposition have publicly stated that the AKP is directly linked to Tawhid-Salam and Erdoğan’s cadres are covering for the group — and for its Iranian masters — by stopping investigations, arresting those who speak out, and spreading disinformation while allowing known Iranian intelligence agents to escape Turkish dragnets. Of the 251 suspects named in the thwarted official investigation into Tawhid-Salam, twenty-eight were Iranians, all of them suspected Qods Force operatives; none were called to testify and the AKP did its best to prevent press coverage of the matter. For his part, Erdoğan has dismissed the entire issue, terming Tawhid-Salam “fake” and “imaginary.”

To say that Ankara seems to be working at cross-purposes in the matter of Tawhid-Salam is too kind. A special prosecutor’s investigation of the group, which lasted three years, recently wrapped up with no findings. Prosecutors did not call a single relevant witness to testify, although many suspected Pasdaran/Tawhid Salam operatives have been identified in Turkey, while AKP higher-ups took over the investigation, ensuring it would go nowhere, instead turning it around as a vehicle to harass the AKP’s enemies who ask questions about the party’s linkages to Tehran. None of the 103 suspects believed to be directly involved in terrorism, including known Qods Force members, who were identified by police inquiries into Tawhid-Salam, were called to share their information with prosecutors.

While Turks who object to the country’s Islamist turn are outraged by the failure of this investigation to unravel the “mystery” of Tawhid-Salam — which appears to be hiding in plain sight — it’s difficult to express surprise, since Erdoğan and the AKP are following their usual playbook of lies, harassment and obfuscation to prevent important questions about the party being answered in any detail. It would therefore be wise to expect that the Pasdaran will continue to exercise its malign influence over Erdoğan and the AKP as long as they remain in power in Ankara. To observe that the secret alliance between the leaders of Turkey, a critical country for both Europe and the Middle East, and the most dangerous men in Iran, presents a challenge for NATO and the West is a considerable understatement.

29 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on The Readneck Review Blog and commented:
    Don’t expect much help from Turkey. Those who thought the election of Islamist Recep Erdogan was a fluke were sorely mistaken. While the Turkish people and military don’t like Iran or Terrorists, the leadership us increasingly friendly to them. Kind of like our President… One of Erdogans new best friends… Hmmmm.

  2. Very good analysis and breakdown. I thin too many people still assume the Turkey that was is still in power. Do you think they will at some point have an Egypt moment and the military will step in to do the will of the people?

    • Many have expected that for some time. It’s possible, but the AKP has really broken the back of the military’s secularist leadership. Many younger officers, now rising up, share Islamist views.

  3. Rupert Fiennes permalink

    Umm, this is the Turkish government who has been happily tolerating and supporting various Syrian opposition groups? Who are the sworn enemy of the Iranian vassal state that Assad’s Syria has become? Not sure that makes sense!

    • Welcome to the Near East

      • dougr100 permalink

        Yeah that puzzles me too- letting in Sunni jihadists while cozying up to Shiite Iran

    • Gus permalink

      Confusing, also if you look at the position of Azerbaijan which is an important player in the region for its energy resources: Turkey and Azerbaijan consider themselves brother states, both being turkic, and have very bad relations with common neighbour Armenia (Nagorno-Karabakh; Armenian genocide and its denial). Iran however, has very close relations with (christian) Armenia. This even though its population is predominantly shia muslim just like that of Azerbaijan (Turkey is predominantly sunni), not to mention the fact that it has a very significant population (some millions) of ethnic Azeri’s. Azerbaijan, in turn, has very close (military) relations with Israel.

      Reminds me of De Gaulle’s: ‘France has no friends, only interests’. I just don’t really understand how Erdogan sees that it is in Turkey’s (or his) interest to throw in his lot with Iran.

      • Turks and Azeris speak mutually intelligible languages but Azeris are 85% Shia, a consequence of centuries of Persian domination. Will Turkey ever play the ethnic card to weaken Iran, which has Turkic minorities like the Azeris?

        On the other hand, Persian culture had an enormous impact on the Caucasus, including the Christian countries of Armenia and Georgia. The Armenian minority in Iran is officially recognized and, although discriminated against, is allowed a degree of autonomy. In Iran, Armenians have memorials to victims of the 1915 genocide in Iran and are allowed to commemorate the date in public. In contrast, Armenians are viewed as devils in Azerbaijan and Turkey keeps denying 1915. I suspect that the average Armenian feels at least some affinity with Iran, at least with its Persian core.

  4. Strategically, Iran and Turkey are both “other”, peripheral states in a Middle East dominated by Arabs. (I put aside the many wars between Ottomans and Iranians over the centuries for dominance of what is now the Arab world). However, while it is understandable the Iranians would try and subvert the government in Ankara (which is what Iran does and does really well), it is strange that the Erdogan government would seem so passive about this occurrence. (The Islamist explanation does not hold not just for Shia-Sunni reasons but because the last caliph was an Ottoman and it would be an affront for a religious Turk to see Iran’s mullahs as religious equals). Further, the polls done on the average Turk in the street show a certain wariness of Iran, even if not hostility.

    Curiously, this 1983 CSM article indicates some Turkish support for Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war:
    http://www.csmonitor.com/1983/0831/083149.html

    Erdogan was originally friends with Assad, so I would expect Iranian policy now would be geared towards moving Turkey back to the Iran column or at least neutralising Turkey as a source of anti-Assad agitation.

    At present Turkey is neither friends with Iran nor really with the US. A truly strange state of affairs given how strong Turkey once strong US alliance. Seems amusing that not long ago, Turkey was discussed as a possible EU member!

    • Well said, mon vieux. Turkey was always a good deal more complex place than stereotypes often allowed. Yet the AKP years have brought big changes — political, economic, social, generational — that have profoundly altered the country: from a WesternNATO perspective, most of these changes are negative. I think Erdogan is more a schemer than a true believer, btw, but the AKP has plenty of devout Muslims who seek to make Turkey something old Mustafa Kemal would recognize as everything he wanted the country to abandon nearly a century ago.

      We are living in interesting times …

      • I absolutely agree that the predominant Western view of Turkey is still stuck in 1970s. But at the same time, I think the predominant Western view of Iran is stuck in 1979. It seems ridiculous that the West is trying to deny Iran a regional hegemony that it will always have by virtue of its sheer size and its Shiastan to west and east of Iran.

  5. Mike Lumish permalink

    You got off to an interesting start with this talk of the Deep State, especially as that idea has become a preferred excuse of the gibbering idiot left (think Daily Kos or FireDogLake) to explain away the failure of the people to rise up against Obama the Blood Thirsty Tyrant and install them into their natural place as rulers of the industrialized world.

    I had a friend in grad school who was from Istanbul and was, as you can imagine, quite the interesting fellow. As you indicate, he was most angry that certain promises made in 1922 had never been kept and was a dogged supporter of the islamic reform parties through the years when they were routinely banned and reconstituted – this despite his western education and prospects for a brilliant secular career. My surprise in all this is actually that the army has yet to exert its traditional self proclaimed role as Guardian of the Nation to clamp down on affairs.

    • I concur there…thanks for sharing.

    • As mentioned by others, the Turkish Army has largely been neutered through the “Sledgehammer Trials” almost a decade ago that targeted the Ergenekon.

      I’m not sure why the Ergenekon did not get greater support from Turkish allies in the West during this process.

      • Mike Lumish permalink

        Thanks. I had a specific reason not to be watching the news in that time window, but I can go back now and refresh.

  6. Airwalk permalink

    Great backgrounder! Many thanks for this!
    My comment: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk must be rotating in his grave if he sees and hears what is happening in his country.

  7. c6543 permalink

    So, is the sectarian Sunni – Shia hatred on the ground in Sham a sham? It seems very real to me, Or is it all about expending some pawns and stirring up some dust for a greater mutual goal, such as the destruction of the West?

    • It’s not a sham but the Sunni-Shia divide has never gotten in the way of Iranian intelligence operations.

  8. c6543 permalink

    What do you make of the quite aggressive stance of Russia and Syria against the American intervention, which nominally should benefit Russian-backed Assad? Do you sense any similarities between IS and Algerian GIA?

    • The Kremlin line was tougher than Assad’s. There are many similarities between IS and GIA ….

  9. A good memory can beat Google permalink

    Turkey is a conundrum. An article by David P Goldman aka Spengler:
    “Turkey’s financial position is one of the world’s great financial mysteries, in fact, a uniquely opaque puzzle: the country has by far the biggest foreign financing requirement relative to GDP among all the world’s large economies, yet the sources of its financing are impossible to trace.”

    points to Qatar and Saudi:
    http://www.meforum.org/4828/erdogan-flying-carpet-unravels

    But another source is the group around the Iranian Babak Zanjani:

    “The Zanjani investigation in Iran and the Zarrab investigation in Turkey have followed very different courses. The Iranian authorities have always found it necessary to proceed with the Zanjani case, while from the beginning, Turkish government officials labeled the corruption allegations a “coup” attempt and tried to cover them up. All the prosecutors and police officers involved in the investigation have been removed and Zarrab was released after a short while in custody. He was even called a hero by pro-government media outlets.”

    http://www.todayszaman.com/business_chp-deputy-asks-govt-to-confirm-iranian-probe-into-zarrab_356504.html

    It is more than a full time job to follow the Byzantine maze.

  10. uwe permalink

    If I may recommend something: Everybody who wants to better understand Turkey’s complex relationship to other islamists states should read Tom Corn’s excellent “The Clash of the Caliphates”, which can be found here: http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-clash-of-the-caliphates-understanding-the-real-war-of-ideas

  11. Well, i read all comments and must confess that this article can indeed be somehow puzzling at first sight; however, İt can also serve pretty vivdly as to the defacto state of turkey since 1923
    For over 7 centuries the islamic flag holders were the arabs ( omevides & abassides) chaliphates, then came the turn of the turks with ( seljuks followed by ottomans ) chaliphates, islam had never been represented as its totality by the İranians ( persians )
    This is the very basis of the new World order
    A new World in which the new flag holders are the iranians, from Anatolia to central asia, and from Pakistan to the horn of africa
    Be puzzled no more
    Welcome to the NEW WORLD ORDER

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