Turkey and Iran will look to boost security cooperation during the 12th meeting of the Turkey-Iran High Security Commission in Ankara on April 14-18. The agenda is expected to be dominated by discussions about cooperation against violent rebel Kurdish groups: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which targets Turkey, and the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), which is active in Iran.
The eight-member Iranian delegation is headed by Deputy Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtaj (Mehr News Agency, April 13). The Turkish delegation will be led by Interior Minister Undersecretary Osman Gunes and is expected to include senior officials from the Turkish National Police, National Intelligence Organization (MIT), the Gendarmerie and the Turkish Ministry for Foreign Affairs (Today’s Zaman, April 12). The previous meeting of the commission was held in Tehran in February 2006.
The commission was first established in 1988 but for the first decade of its existence was essentially moribund. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, elements from Iranian intelligence were in close contact with violent Turkish Islamists, providing them with arms and training in camps outside Tehran and using them to conduct surveillance and carry out attacks inside Turkey. The primary targets for Iranian intelligence were exiled Iranian dissidents. However, the Turkish Islamists trained in Iran also assassinated foreign diplomats stationed in Turkey, sometimes at their Iranian handlers’ behest, as well as and prominent Turkish secularists. Although Tehran provided little support to the PKK, it tolerated the organization’s activities inside Iran and offered a safe haven for PKK militants being pursued by the Turkish security forces.
“Many times, I watched the PKK terrorists flee across the border into Iran,” the late Gen. Dogan Beyazit once told Jamestown. “Whenever we protested, they would prevaricate and then send a car to the border and tell us to go and look for ourselves. But when we accepted the car would travel at 20 kilometers an hour, and then have a puncture or break down or something. By the time we arrived anywhere the terrorists had already gone. And then the Iranians would deny that they had ever been there. It was a lie, of course.”
It is now more than a decade, however, since violent Islamists with links to Iranian intelligence carried out attacks inside Turkey. Since the election of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in November 2002 and particularly since the establishment of PJAK in 2004, security cooperation has improved dramatically.
PJAK held its inaugural congress in April 2004, one month before a PKK Party Congress voted to return to violence after a five-year ceasefire. Although the two are organizationally distinct, both have their main training camps in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq and profess allegiance to the teachings of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, who has been imprisoned in Turkey since February 1999. There is no evidence that the PJAK and the PKK have ever staged joint operations although some militants have moved from one organization to the other and there have been indications of logistical cooperation.
Similarly, although Iran and Turkey have not staged any joint military operations against the PJAK/PKK, there has been intelligence cooperation. In recent years, each country has also arrested militants from the organization targeting the other. Iran, in particular, has detained and extradited several PKK militants to Turkey. In March the Turkish security forces in the southeastern province of Van arrested Memichir Eminzade, an alleged PJAK regional commander, after he had crossed into Turkey from northern Iraq (CNNTurk, March 19). Both Turkey and Iran have also struck at Kurdish rebel bases in northern Iraq. In December 2007, Turkey launched the first of a series of air raids against PKK positions in northern Iraq based on intelligence provided by the United States. In February, Turkish commandos staged a cross border raid against PKK camps in the Zap valley (see Terrorism Monitor, March 7). Iranian artillery has frequently shelled PJAK positions in the Qandil mountains, most recently last month.
On April 13 an explosion killed 12 people and injured 160 more in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz. The reason for the blast, which was initially blamed on a bomb, currently remains unclear. However, on April 13 Ronahi Ahmed, a member of the PJAK’s political wing, issued a warning that the organization had the ability to “carry out bombings against Iranian forces” inside Iran.
“We can’t stand handcuffed when Iran is chasing us on a daily basis,” she said. “Iran should be aware that we have a long arm that can strike at significant places inside Iran.” (AFP, April 13)
The PKK is also expected to step up its bombing campaign inside Turkey in the months ahead (see Terrorism Monitor, April 4).
The PJAK has long presented the United States with a dilemma. Allegations, particularly by Tehran, that the organization is backed by Washington have been publicly denied. PJAK leader Haji Ahmadi was, however, allowed to visit Washington in the summer of 2007, when he met with some low-level U.S. officials.
Nevertheless, since the United States began supplying Turkey with intelligence against the PKK, there has been a noticeable hardening in attitudes towards Washington in PJAK propaganda. On April 13 Ahmed denied that the PJAK was receiving support from the US. “We have no relations with the Americans, and Iran’s claim that we have an alliance with America is not true,” she said (AFP, April 13).
The precise agenda of the Turkey-Iran High Security Commission in Ankara is currently unclear. However, there is no doubt that both countries have sufficient reason to want to boost security cooperation against the PKK/PJAK. Yet Turkey will be eager to avoid jeopardizing its access to U.S. intelligence on PKK movements in northern Iraq by being seen to be cooperating too closely with Iran. For the United States, the dilemma is probably even more acute. It has no desire to encourage Turkey to cooperate more closely with Iran, least of all on an issue with possible repercussions for stability inside Iraq. Yet, while the PKK continues to pose a threat to Turkey’s security, it is probably also unrealistic to expect Ankara’s full cooperation in any future international isolation of the regime in Tehran.