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News Analysis: Turkey-iran Dispute Heats Up; Some Worry About Regional War

August 2, 1999
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With international attention firmly fixed on the slowly evolving Middle East peace process, there are growing anxieties about the possibility of war between Turkey and Iran.

The gathering conflict between the two non-Arab nations — Turkey, Israel’s closest regional ally, and Iran, its most bitter foe — is over a small triangle of territory bounded by Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

The question now facing Israel’s military analysts and strategic planners is whether Jerusalem can stand on the sidelines if tensions between Turkey and Iran explode into war.

According to the Turks, who bombed the triangle twice last month, it is part of the Western-protected no-fly zone of northern Iraq, which is out of bounds to Iraq and was stealthily annexed by Iran in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.

The area is now home, they say, to an Iranian-backed training camp of the separatist Kurdish Workers Party.

Iran insists the territory has always been Iranian. It has vigorously protested the Turkish attack and what it claims was a subsequent incursion by Turkish troops.

The London-based Arabic media, unable to decide which is the lesser of the two evils — pro-Israel Turkey or revolutionary Iran — have confined themselves to expressing concern that the two states are drifting inexorably toward a “devastating” war.

Tensions heightened last week when Ankara, after accusing Tehran of aiding Turkish Kurd rebels, charged that Iran had seized the disputed triangle.

The London-based, Saudi-owned al-Hayat reported that Turkish President Suleyman Demirel had bluntly warned Iran not to equate Ankara’s “patience” with weakness.

Countries that have differences with Turkey, he warned ominously, are “fully aware of our strength,” and it would not be in Iran’s interests to “miscalculate,” the strength of Turkey’s anger.

This was a clear reference to Ankara’s threats last year to take military action against Syria unless it halted activities of the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, on its territory and expelled PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan.

Damascus complied, and Turkish commandos subsequently seized Ocalan in Kenya.

Demirel’s remarks were a response to a statement by the commander of Iran’s land forces, Brig. Gen. Abdolali Pourshasb, that last week’s Iranian military exercises formed part of preparations to “repel those who would violate Iran’s airspace and international borders.”

Iran has accused Turkey of violating its air space and border in two incidents, including a July 18 air strike on its border outposts near the mainly Kurdish town of Piranshahr, in which five people were killed and 11 wounded.

Ankara responded by accusing Iran of harboring PKK rebels, a charge that Tehran was quick to deny.

In remarks carried by the Turkish media, Turkey’s chief of staff, Huseyin Kivrikoglu, denied that Turkish warplanes had attacked targets inside Iran, saying the plants had hit PKK bases in northern Iraq.

Kivrikoglu, a central figure in last year’s drive against Syria, suggested he saw PKK activity in Iran as a new threat.

“Neither Iraq nor Iran can maintain control in that region,” he was quoted as saying. “We know the PKK has bases in Iran. They’re [setting up] camps in Iran and crossing from there into Iraq, and then into Turkey.”

Kivrikoglu’s public comments, rare in themselves, coincided with claims by the chief of Turkey’s air forces, Gen. Ilhan Kilic, that Iran was collaborating with the PKK.

“Our planes bombed a PKK camp inside the northern Iraq border,” Kilic told the Turkish daily Milliyet. “There were Iranian officers at the camp and they died.

Referring to recent student demonstrations in Iran, Kilic said Iran’s “internal affairs” were “fairly chaotic at the moment.

“I imagine they want the attention elsewhere,” he added. “That is why they are behaving like this.”

Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem has met Iran’s ambassador to Turkey, Mohammad Hussein Lavasani, and requested the immediate return of two Turkish border guards who Tehran claim were captured during a Turkish military incursion into the triangle last week.

Abderrahman Rashed, editor of another London-based Saudi daily, Asharq al- Awsat, warned that while Turkey’s global anti-PKK campaign might be justified, it should stop short of armed conflict with Iran, as the cost would be prohibitive for both sides.

Events, he said, are currently moving in the direction of a war between Turkey and Iran. This might be favored by some in Tehran who are anxious to deflect attention from Iran’s domestic tensions.

But with Turkey and Iran each possessing arsenals that would enable them to fight for a decade, such a war would be devastating, warned Rashed.

Turkey, he continued, is intent on a fight to the finish against the Kurdish rebels and it has declared it would chase the separatists wherever they are – – be it Iran, Syria, or even Africa and Europe.

But its current campaign, warned Rashed, will lead to war with Iran unless reason prevails on both sides.

Turkey is today in search of a new role following the end of the Cold War, when geopolitics gave it a significant role — on the southern flank of the former Soviet Union and in control of the strait that is vital for Russian exports.

In terms of regional relations, Turkey’s late president, Turgut Ozal, chose to turn southward to the Arab world. But after Ozal’s death in 1993, Ankara chose to forge a close military relationship with Israel against Syria and Iran.

The decision, say analysts, was taken in the belief that this would compensate Turkey for its eroding role in NATO and turn it into a major regional power in an area from which its influence had been largely absent since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

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