by Mostapha Hassan Abdelwahab
Israeli National Security Council stated that Tehran may seek to harm Israelis in Turkey.
A battleground involving Iran, Turkey and Israel is in the making. There have been tensions between Iraq and Turkey, on which Iran weighed in. In addition, the shadow war between Iran and Israel—involving cyber warfare and assassinations of top military officials and scientists linked to the nuclear program—have continued, which Turkey could be one of its theatres. The question is how far the potential escalation of dispute between Iran and Israel, likely to take place on the Turkish soil, could fuel the current tensions between Ankara and Tehran.Tensions flaring up
Tensions between Turkey and Iran have been running high in the past weeks in northern Iraq over the growing Kurdish militancy and the Turkish operations inside the Iraqi territories to curtail it. Rejected by Iraq as a violation of the sovereignty of the country, the Turkish role has also been dismissed by Iran.
Iraj Masjedi, Iran’s former ambassador to Iraq and former IRGC affiliate, called on Ankara last year to withdraw its troops from Iraq, saying Turkey had no reason to intervene in Sinjar (a district in the province of Nineveh that saw clashes between the Iraqi forces and a Yazidi militia known as the Shingal Resistance Units (YBS).
Sinjar is one of Iraq’s two major Yazidi population centers. Terrorists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of the area in 2014 and launched a genocidal campaign, including the sale of thousands of Yazidi women as sex slaves. The PKK assisted in training and supporting the YBS, assisting in the flight and return of Yazidi refugees, and fighting IS in 2014, supplementing efforts by the US-led military coalition. After ISIS was driven out of the region, the PKK-backed YBS remained powerful.
An Iranian lever
Given the long-running feud between the Turkish state and the PKK, which lasted decades and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, the Turkish intervention in northern Iraq seemed unavoidable. Indeed, Turkey’s intervention in northern Iraq is more of a long-standing tradition than an emergency response. What’s new in the current game between Iraq, Turkey, and Iran is the Iranian protest against Turkish behavior, including attacks on Turkish allies in the Kurdistan region by Iran-backed militias.
The latest in a series of attacks on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) believed to have been carried out by Iranian-backed armed groups prompted the region’s prime minister to warn on May 2 that the situation “cannot continue”. Six missiles were launched on Sunday night near a large refinery near Erbil, the regional capital, which had previously been targeted on April 6.
Iran is using the lever of the Kurds against Turkey. It is exerting pressure to influence the government formation in the Shiite-majority country.
Also, the attacks on Erbil may serve as a warning to Turkey about the KDP’s oil and gas exports via Turkey, which is yet another front in their struggle for influence in Iraq. Iran does not want to encourage alternative gas export opportunities for the KDP, particularly since the Iranian oil and gas industry remains sanctioned.
Elsewhere on the chessboard, Iran and Israel have been engaged in a devastating shadow war, centered primarily on assassinations and cyberattacks.
The latest in the series of these assassinations was carried out against the IRGC commander Hassan Sayyad Khodaei. Gunmen on motorcycles opened fire outside his home killing him in his car in Tehran. The official news agency IRNA reported that five gunshots killed Hassan Sayyad Khodaei as he returned home near Mojahedin-e-Islam Street around 4pm (11:30 GMT), according to the state news agency IRNA.
Israel has assassinated the IRGC commander. According to reports, Israel informed US officials that it was responsible for the assassination of a senior member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps earlier this week. In response, Iran vowed revenge. The Iranian military officials, including the IRGC chief Hossein Salami, said the retribution will be severe. How Iran will get revenge remained undisclosed. But there have been some indications of how this retribution will take place—and where.
A week after an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander was killed and Tehran accused Israel of being behind it, Israeli national security officials issued stern warnings to their citizens against traveling to Turkey. The officials warned of the possibility of attacks following retaliatory threats from Tehran.
In a May 30, 2022, statement, Israeli National Security Council stated that Tehran may seek to harm Israelis in Turkey. The Israeli statement described the country as a “very dangerous country”. Turkey is a popular tourist destination for Israelis, and the two countries are working to repair relations after more than a decade of hostility.
Israeli observers said that the Iranian response could range from attacks on Israeli citizens, Israeli targets worldwide, launching Iran-made drones possessed by pro-Iran proxy militias on Israel and to a lesser extent carrying out missile attacks against Tel Aviv. This warning is telling. Maybe there’s intelligence in Israel that confirms an Iranian retaliation against Israel in Turkey in response to the assassination.
Given the ongoing proxy war between Ankara and Tehran, the latter could make its threat to get revenge for the killing of its top IRGC commander come to pass—on the Turkish soil. At least Iran could use this threat as a lever in its ongoing dispute with Turkey in northern Iraq—given that it has already ordered its aligned militias to fire missiles on Turkey and that Ankara is getting closer to the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE. If happened, the Iranian revenge on the Turkish soil could throw the relations between the two countries into disarray.
The Iranian response, though unlikely, could deal a blow to the Turkish tourism and economy, key pillars for the popularity of the AKP ruling party, a thing that Ankara won’t tolerate. Therefore, impact of such a response is unknown, adding more uncertainty to an already complicated landscape.
Mostapha Hassan Abdelwahab is the former editorial manager of the English edition of the Baghdad Post. He is focusing on Iraqi and Iranian affairs, with articles posted on the Herald Report, Vocal Europe and other platforms.