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.
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.