x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Turkey denies blowing cover of Israeli spy ring in Iran

Disclosure is a significant setback for Israeli espionage efforts in Iran and may have been retaliation for Israel's killing of nine Turks on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in 2010, report says.

RAMALLAH // Turkey denied yesterday allegations it blew the cover of an Israeli spy ring in Iran saying the claim was aimed at destabilising Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

The Washington Post reported that Ankara deliberately revealed to Tehran early last year the identities of as many as 10 Iranians working for the Mossad spy agency.

The disclosure resulted in a significant setback for Israeli espionage efforts in Iran and may have been retaliation for Israel’s killing of nine Turks on-board a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in 2010, according to the report published yesterday.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the allegations were “without any foundation”.

The claims are the latest indication of the depths to which Israeli-Turkish relations have sunk in recent years. The countries are both allies of the United States and used to maintain robust diplomatic, military and intelligence relations, with Israel’s air force regularly using Turkish airspace for training operations.

But tensions have simmered over Mr Erdogan’s support for the Palestinians, along with allegations that Turkish intelligence officials have increased cooperation with Iran.

According to the Washington Post report, Israel had operated some of its Iran spying operations from Turkey, which were monitored by Turkish agents. Israeli officials were taken aback by Turkey’s decision to reveal the identities of their Iranian agents to Tehran, the report said, quoting unnamed US officials, who described the decision as “an effort to slap the Israelis”.

After the alleged incident, Tehran announced in April this year that it had foiled an Israeli spy network and arrested 15 suspects, although it is unknown whether this was related to the alleged Turkish leak.

An advisor to Mr Erdogan, Mustafa Varank, called the allegations “inconsistent” and amounted to “psychological warfare” against the ruling Justice and Development Party, in a post on his Twitter account yesterday.

He warned that the claims in the report may form part of an international campaign against Turkey’s government and intelligence service – the

Milli Istihbarat Teskilati (MIT) – designed to disrupt next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey.

The Wall Street Journal reported this month that the MIT head, Hakan Fidan, was suspected of passing sensitive information on US and Israeli intelligence efforts to Iran.

Israeli officials, who declined to comment on the Turkish spy leak, view Tehran as an enemy and accuse it of wanting to build nuclear weapons, a charge that Iran denies.

The report speculated that anger over the espionage leaks might have been why Israel’s prime minster, Benjamin Netanyahu, had repeatedly refused to apologise to Ankara over the flotilla raid three years ago. During that incident, commandos raided ships bringing aid for the Israeli-besieged Gaza Strip and killed nine people on board.

In March, the US president, Barack Obama, convinced the Israeli premier to apologise to Mr Erdogan over the incident, paving the way for a tentative rapprochement.

But progress in their reconciliation appears to have been stymied by simmering tensions between the two countries.

One Israeli diplomat yesterday said that the “only thing that we have achieved since March is to show the Americans that Erdogan is not remotely interested in a reconciliation”.

David Ignatius, the journalist who wrote the report on the leaks, is no stranger to controversy involving Israel and Turkey.

In 2009, he hosted a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos that resulted in Mr Erdogan storming off the stage. The Turkish premier was angered because he felt he was not given sufficient time to debate with Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, who also was a panelist.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

Tom Seibert reported from Istanbul

* With additional reporting by Reuters