4 October 2011

(This article was first published at Rudaw English-language newspaper)

EXETER, the United Kingdom — Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently signaled in a statement that Turkey is willing to launch joint operations with Iran against Kurdish rebels, the Associated Press reported, but many analysts claim, and Wikileaks cables indicate, that Turkish-Iranian cooperation existed prior to 2011.

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In the past, Iran allegedly allowed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels to operate relatively freely in Iranian territory and sometimes treated wounded PKK fighters in Iranian hospitals. They were not, however, allowed to launch attacks against Turkey on the 50-kilometer strip along the Iranian-Turkish border, Istanbul-based security analyst Gareth Jenkins told Rudaw.

According to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, sent by former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey. Ross L. Wilson, dated 11 August 2006, notes that Tehran provided material support, safe havens, and training to PKK insurgents in order to maximize its influence in Turkey throughout the 1990s. Furthermore, it was allegedly behind attacks on secularists and Iranian opposition members in Turkey. In the late 1990s, for example, there were allegations that around 1,200 PKK militants were residing in various PKK bases in Iran.

Residents of Duhok, Iraqi Kurdistan protesting against the Turkish bombardment of the Qandil Mountains. Photo DIHA.
Residents of Duhok, Iraqi Kurdistan protesting against the Turkish bombardment of the Qandil Mountains. Photo DIHA.

After the capture of PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999, relations between Iran and Turkey improved. The leaked diplomatic cable from 2006 shows that in 1999 Turkey and Iran signed a border security agreement and agreed to exchange intelligence information and coordinate anti-insurgency operations. As part of the agreement, the two countries agreed to cooperate against the PKK and the Iranian dissident group Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK). In 2003, 15 Turkish ministers traveled to Iran. Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer visited Iran in February 2004 and Erdogan traveled to Iran in July 2004.

Gareth Jenkins says the situation changed because Erdogen’s government began to cultivate closer ties with Tehran after it first came to power in November 2002, and — most critically — after the Party for Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) was founded in 2004, which occurred as the PKK launched its second insurgency. As a result Turkey and Iran had mutual interests to combat the Kurdish rebels based in the rugged mountains of Qandil on the Iranian-Turkish-Iraqi border.

“From 2004 onwards there has been a lot of cooperation in terms of intelligence sharing and even the coordination of military operations: e.g. the two launching separate operations at the same time to squeeze the PKK/PJAK — but there have been no joint military operations,” Jenkins said.

In May 2006 a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Ankara shows that Iraqi Kurdish officials grew increasingly concerned that Turkey and Iran were about the launch cross border military operations, and notified U.S. diplomats about their concerns. The Kurdistan Regional Government has both commercial relations with both Turkey, and Iran. According to Kurdish Globe, around 80 percent of goods in Kurdistan Region come from either Turkey or Iran.

PKK and PJAK officials have criticized the US for providing Turkey with intelligence that is then allegedly used by Iran against the PKK. A diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Ankara leaked by Wikileaks, dated 22 October 2008, shows that the PJAK accused Turkey of sharing U.S. intelligence with Iran. However, Turkish political and military leaders stressed to the U.S. that they don’t share operational U.S. intelligence with Iran and that there is coordination with Iran on the Iraq-Iran border.

Another cable leaked from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad dated 19 September 2007 shows that the General Nabaz Ahmed Abdullah, the Head of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense Intelligence Service, Sulaimaniyah branch, told U.S. officials on 9 September that Iran and Turkey have an agreement whereby Iran can obtain support from Turkey to attack the PKK and PJAK.

PKK spokesperson Roj Welat questioned in an interview with Rudaw why the US

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never discussed Turkey sharing intelligence with Iran, and Turkish special soldiers working with the Iranian army in their operations against the PKK. The cable leaked by Wikileaks shows that the U.S. was aware of the PJAK statements, but didn’t believe Turkey shared the intelligence with Iran.

A diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Ankara, dated 23 January 2007, shows that even the anti-Iranian Turkish military, which opposed deepening ties between Turkey and Iran, and saw Iran as a strategic threat, started to rethink their approach out of frustration over continued PKK operations in 2007. Since the U.S. was reluctant to act against the PKK, they were looking to Iran for help.

In January 2007, the Turkish General Staff which commands all the Turkish armed forces asked for direct U.S. action against the PKK annual conference and the Turkish army leadership criticized both the U.S. and Iraqi government for not having acted against the PKK. The Turkish generals notified the U.S. that they would turn to Iranians, if the U.S. would not help them.

The 2007 diplomatic cable shows that the Turkish army claimed the Iranians “were most eager to be helpful” and informed the US that on January 23, 2007 they met with four Iranian military officers in the Turkish General Staff Headquarters to discuss the PKK issue.

Jenkins maintained this approach of the Turkish army is logical.

“The Turkish military despises the Iranian regime, but they share a common enemy in the PKK/PJAK. In the past, the Turkish military also once worked very closely with (Kurdistan Region President Massoud) Barzani against the PKK. It is expediency.”

He added that the US and the EU also overlooked the fact that, despite classifying the PKK as a terrorist organization, they don’t extradite suspected PKK members to Turkey, while Iran has done this several times.

Turkish terrorism expert Emrullah Uslu argued that the cable is not proof of Iranian and Turkish cooperation.

“The Turkish military tries to use Iran as a bargaining chip to get more US support against the PKK. In fact, when you look at the dates of the cable it was in January 2007. In November 2007, Turkey entered into a new era in cooperating with the US. The US has started to share satellite intelligence.”

Saban Kardas, assistant professor of international relations at the TOBB, Economy and Technology University in Ankara, maintained the cable shows the Americans were not ready to extend the help the Turkish army needed to fight the PKK, while the Iranian side was forthcoming.

“At the time the accelerating pace of the resurgent PKK was a big domestic issue and a growing concern. As you would recall, only after the Turks’ expression of such frustration and veiled threats of unilateral cross border intervention did the US finally approve the 2008 cross-border operations undertaken with the assistance of US actionable intelligence.”

Jenkins said the US might not be happy with cooperation between the two, but added that there are also news tensions between Turkey and Iran over Turkey’s policies against the Baath regime in Syria. Recently Erdogan said Assad would sooner or later lose power.

“It is no secret that Washington is not happy about the AKP’s support for the regime in Tehran in general — although there have been tensions between the AKP and Iran in recent months.”

Furthermore Iranian officials expressed their dissatisfaction with Turkish plans to install a NATO missile shield, and Iran’s Ambassador to Turkey Bahman Hosseinpour ruled out joint operations on 16 September, the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman reported. He however didn’t deny they could cooperate more “to eliminate the PKK and PJAK and remove them from the region.”

Uslu added that there is no evidence that Turkey cooperates with Iran, apart from some Turkish cabinet ministers who have sympathy towards the Iranian revolution.

“I think the opposite is true. Iran, by proclaiming Karayilan (PKK leader) was arrested by Iranian forces, conducted a false flag operation against Turkish population to put Turkey’s relatively coitus approach toward the using military strategy into question in the eyes of Turkish population.”


Kamran Karadaghi, former chief of staff to the Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, said the Turkish government decided to work with Iran to fight the PKK “but I also think that US knows this. So I hope that the cooperation would end here. I tend to think that this is what will happen.”

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