The stunning allegation that Turkey would have exposed a covert network likely providing information on Iran’s nuclear activities comes not long after Ankara – a NATO ally – chose a U.S.-sanctioned Chinese company to build an missile defense system in Turkey, triggering concerns in Washington.
In a column posted late Wednesday Ignatius wrote that according to “knowledgeable sources” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government’s alleged outing of the Iranians spying for Israel had resulted in “a ‘significant’ loss of intelligence.”
“Though U.S. officials regarded exposure of the Israeli network as an unfortunate intelligence loss, they didn’t protest directly to Turkish officials,” he wrote “Instead, Turkish-American relations continued warming last year to the point that Erdogan was among [President] Obama’s key confidants.”
Ignatius wrote that the Mossad “had apparently run part of its Iranian spy network through Turkey, which has relatively easy movement back and forth across its border with Iran,” and that Turkey’s intelligence agency was likely monitoring the covert meetings.
Reaction to the claims is being sought from the Turkish Embassy in Washington.
The alleged Turkish tip-off to Iran was reported to have occurred sometime “early last year.”
A report by Iran’s state-funded Press TV, published in April last year, may have a bearing on the allegations in Ignatius’ column.
It said that on April 10, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security announced that it had recently arrested 15 people linked to an Israeli spy cell.
The ministry also said it had identified a Mossad-run network “in a neighboring country” designed “to carry out operations against the interests of Iran.”
The “neighboring country” was not identified; Turkey is one of Iran’s seven neighbors, although Iran has also accused another of its neighbors, Azerbaijan, of allowing Israeli spies to operate there.
Last May, Iran hanged two men who had been convicted of spying for Israel and the U.S. respectively. Tehran prosecutors said Mohammad Heydari had been found guilty of providing intelligence on “security issues and national secrets” to the Mossad, and Kourosh Ahmadi of passing on secrets to the CIA. Iran has also blamed Israel and the U.S. for the killing of at least four of its nuclear scientists since 2010.
Despite Western concerns about some Turkish foreign policy shifts under Erdogan – including support for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, an ambivalent stance towards Iran, and hostility towards Israel – he enjoys a close relationship with Obama,who named the prime minister as one of a handful of foreign leaders with whom he enjoys “friendships and the bonds of trust.”
Turkey and Israel had a history of close cooperation until relatively recently. Simmering tensions between the Jewish state and the Islamist Erdogan administration – which had begun reaching out to Hamas in 2006 – erupted publicly during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli army offensive against Hamas in Gaza in the winter of 2008-9.
In February 2009, weeks after the fighting ended, Erdogan had a heated exchange with Israel’s ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, at a forum in Davos and then stormed off the stage.
Over the ensuing months Turkey began to block Israeli participation in NATO events, and Erdogan stepped up his public criticism of Israel.
Tensions worsened dramatically after Israeli commandos in May 2010 raided a Turkish ship trying to break a security blockade around the Gaza Strip. Violent clashes between the commandos and pro-Hamas activists left nine activists dead.
Turkey withdrew its ambassador and demanded an Israeli apology and compensation. The Obama administration early this year brokered a truce between the two governments, but relations remained strained.