Iran and Turkey Move Closer on Counter-Terrorism Cooperation

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 16

There are signs that Turkey and Iran intend to increase cooperation in their mutual struggle against militant Kurdish nationalists based in northern Iraq. The Turkish Interior Ministry announced in a statement on April 17 that “ Turkish and Iranian officials have signed a memorandum of understanding expressing their willingness to develop cooperation in security issues.” According to the statement, issued after the conclusion of the 12th High Security Commission (HSC) meeting between Turkey and Iran: “The increase in some terrorist movements in the region damages both countries, and the most influential way to battle this outlawed problem is the exchange of intelligence and security cooperation” (Hurriyet, April 17). The main movements alluded to in this statement are the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which seeks autonomy for Kurds in Turkey, and the closely related Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), whose members are militants from the heavily Kurdish northwestern provinces of Iran who carry out cross-border strikes into Iran.

Various media sources confirmed that the primary agenda of the HSC meeting was to negotiate new joint measures both countries can take in order to further their existing “active counterterrorism cooperation” (Today’s Zaman, April 15). It is important to recall the results of the previous High Security Commission meeting in February 2006, when Turkey and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding calling for the mountainous region of northern Iraq bordering Turkey and Iran to become “a peaceful land which is purified of all kinds of terror” (Sabah, April 14). On April 15 Iranian Deputy Interior Minister Abbas Mohtai told journalists prior to his departure for Turkey that “there is no difference between the PKK and PJAK. Turkey and Iran are the targets of terrorist attacks” (Hurriyet, April 15). To further explain the Iranian position and the purpose of his visit, Abbas Mohtaj emphasized that “the two countries fight against terror and cooperate with each other, and Iran looks at the PKK and the PJAK as a single terrorist organization under two different names. We want to increase cooperation with Turkey against the terrorist organizations” (Hurriyet, April, 15, 2008).

The visit of the Iranian Deputy Interior Minister was the first high profile security visit from Iran in the aftermath of late February’s Turkish cross-border ground operations and air strikes against terrorist havens in northern Iraq. Although Turkish ground units returned to their homeland a week after beginning a precise and effective operation, occasional clashes and hot pursuits around the Turkish-Iraqi border have continued to take place.

Military operations along the Iranian border with Kurdish northern Iraq have also increased in recent days. Only a day before the visit of the Iranian delegation to Ankara, Iranian artillery began shelling villages in the Qandil Mountains district of Sulaymaniya Province in northern Iraq on April 14, reportedly killing one high-level PJAK commander (Hurriyet, April, 15). Remote and isolated, the Qandil region has become a secure home for the upper echelons of both the PKK and PJAK. Although the Iranian military often shells Iraqi border villages in an attempt to flush out PJAK havens, the timing of this shelling, just prior to the counter-terrorism cooperation meeting in Ankara, can also be interpreted as a signal from Iran to Turkey that it is willing to advance bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation, as well as conveying Iranian willingness to conduct joint counter-terrorism operations with Turkey.

Another important dimension to the timing of the attacks, perhaps less pronounced by mainstream media, is the fact that this visit took place at a time when Ankara’s relations with the West have been souring, both with the European Union (EU) and the United States. A week before the visit of the Iranian delegation, the president of the EU Commission, Jose Manuel Barosso, and the EU Commissioner responsible for EU enlargement, Olli Rehn, visited Turkey and delivered messages that left Turkey’s accession to the EU uncertain. Although its recent cross-border operations in northern Iraq were aided by U.S.-provided real time intelligence and the U.S. opening of Iraqi airspace to Turkish warplanes, the degree of counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States is still far from what Turkey expects from its strategic partner. Under these circumstances, the Ankara visit of the Iranian delegation to negotiate further active counter-terrorism cooperation in northern Iraq could not have been timelier.

This is not to say that Turkey has been trying to balance a lack of decisive U.S. counter-terrorism cooperation by initiating new relations with Iran. Yet, from a realistic perspective, if Turkish-Iranian counter-terrorism cooperation works on the ground, it is worth pursuing. In view of the fact that the American way of trilateral dialogue and cooperation between Turkey, the United States and the Iraqi government to counter the terrorist threat in northern Iraq has produced few tangible results so far, Ankara has to consider the available options in the region.

After a series of recent and deadly attacks against Iranian soldiers by PJAK guerrillas, Iran clearly shares with Turkey a similar vulnerability to hit-and-run attacks by PJAK terrorists from their safe havens in northern Iraq. Although U.S. officials have stressed that Washington considers both the PKK and PJAK to be terrorist organizations, there have been persistent reports for several years from Iranian, Turkish and American media sources of covert U.S. military support for the anti-Iranian PJAK (Press TV [Tehran], April 19; Turkish Daily News, November 21, 2006; New York Times, October 23, 2007; Los Angeles Times, April 15). PJAK leader Rahman Haj Ahmad visited Washington last summer, though no official visits were scheduled.

A lack of U.S. commitment to crush terrorist strongholds in northern Iraq has various causes, including the desire to avoid destabilizing Iraq’s relatively stable northern region and the need to concentrate U.S. troops where they are most needed—in the central and southern parts of Iraq where Shiite and Sunni insurgents target both each other and U.S. forces. As attacks from Iraq’s mountainous north target Turkey and Iran, it is not surprising that U.S. inaction has been viewed by some as active support for terrorists in both countries. American resistance to allowing Turkey to conduct comprehensive cross-border counter-terrorism operations in northern Iraq has exacerbated Turkish concerns about U.S. involvement in the region.

Yet when it comes to interacting with the United States in the region, Turkey and Iran are in different categories. While Turkey has been a U.S. ally through NATO since 1952 and is still actively cooperating in the global war on terrorism and various other NATO missions ranging from Kosova to Afghanistan, the United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran for almost three decades. In addition, the United States has been concerned about Iranian nuclear ambitions and support from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards for Shiite militias in Iraq and Lebanon. Therefore, although the threat of ethnic-Kurdish terrorist havens in northern Iraq seems a common denominator in the recent talks between Turkish and Iranian security officials, there remain various issues on which the two countries diverge and have to consider matters based on their own merits and relative standing in relations with the United States.

Before jumping into the policy repercussions of the recent Turkish-Iranian security negotiations, it is important to assess their outcome. Intelligence sharing and continuation of security cooperation emerge as the two key results of the negotiations, based on the official statement of the Turkish Ministry of the Interior. Undoubtedly, these outcomes will have significant policy ramifications for the region and the United States. More critically, these outcomes are likely to affect U.S.-Turkish relations. To be realistic, any deterioration in Turkish-American cooperation on Iraq is likely to push Ankara into a search for regional partners such as Iran and Syria. Even though this search may not at first be very tangible and nowhere close to the existing level of U.S.-Turkish relations, at the very least Turkey may be more receptive to cooperation proposals from regional countries. Although this does not indicate any change in the common vision of the United States and Turkey, Turkish cooperation with Iran and Syria could make Ankara more resistant to U.S. demands for cooperation against these countries, such as the deployment of a U.S. missile shield in Turkey or Turkish participation in an American embargo against Iran or Syria.