Turkish envoy attracts attention with veiled criticism of Iran in article for Israeli think tank 

Turkey’s Ambassador to Washington Hasan Murat Mercan. (Anadolu)
Turkey’s Ambassador to Washington Hasan Murat Mercan. (Anadolu)
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Updated 16 April 2022

Turkish envoy attracts attention with veiled criticism of Iran in article for Israeli think tank 

Turkey’s Ambassador to Washington Hasan Murat Mercan. (Anadolu)
  • Hasan Murat Mercan noted that Turkey and Israel were under threat from similar regional malign actors, without mentioning Iran
  • Ambassador also underlined the need for cooperation against terrorism

ANKARA: An article by Turkey’s Ambassador to Washington for Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Strategic Studies journal Turkeyscope, has raised questions about the state of Turkey’s relations with Iran.

Apart from seeking cooperation between Turkey and Israel in fields of security and energy, Hasan Murat Mercan noted that the two states are under threat from similar regional malign actors, without mentioning Iran.

The article didn’t go unnoticed by the Iranian media. The London-based TV station Iran International commenting on the article: “Ankara’s envoy to Washington has called for Israeli-Turkish cooperation in countering regional threats, in a possible hint at Iran, amid improving bilateral ties.”

The ambassador also underlined the need for cooperation against terrorism.

“Turkish-Israeli interaction offers more than a conventional regional partnership in the face of malign actors and trends. Conventional partnerships are for a particular issue, be it against a threat or for an objective. Conventional partnerships have expiration dates. Turkey and Israel, on the other hand, share a common neighborhood, heritage, and not least, a common future,” he said in his article, which was entitled “Turkey and Israel: Optimism must prevail.”

The ambassador continued: “Dealing with malign actors and their activities throughout our region is a particular area for enhanced coordination. The Turkish-Israeli partnership would be effective to further curb destabilizing moves in the broader Middle East and North Africa.”

Israel and Turkey have always shared concerns over Iranian influence in Syria, with Iran’s proxies, including Hezbollah and Shiite militias, threatening Turkish interests.

Ambassador Mercan, a figure close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party, called for re-designing Turkish-Israeli relations toward mutual trust.

“Turkish and Israeli geostrategic interests dictate a close and multi-layered partnership. “There is no room for complacency for both countries when it comes to: (i) managing regional dynamics that contain, inter alia, (a)symmetrical security threats and challenges, (ii) the need to further secure and diversify energy supply routes, and (iii) promoting inter-cultural synergy as a bulwark against Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism and all sorts of hate crimes.”

It is not the first time that Mercan has underlined Turkey’s concerns about the Iranian threat to the region’s security.

In a speech to Haaretz in 2008 as president of the Turkish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Mercan said a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a threat to Turkey.

As part of bilateral moves to mend ties, Israeli President Isaac Herzog met Erdogan last month in Ankara. Erdogan recently said that Turkey and Israel can cooperate to carry Israeli natural gas to Europe.

“While there are fluctuations in Turkey-Iran relations, these countries know how to keep the relationship in certain contours,” Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, told Arab News.

“There is, however, Turkish frustration from the growing competition between the two in northern Iraq, as well as the continuing competition in Syria,” she added.

Several acts of espionage by Iranian agents against Israelis and Iranian dissidents on Turkish soil were recently revealed and thwarted by Turkish intelligence agencies.

Since last year, Turkish security forces increased their operations against the Iranian espionage network in the country.

After detaining Iranian spies over a plot to kidnap a former Iranian soldier last October, other spies were also arrested in February before they carried out a plan to kill Turkish-Israeli businessman Yair Galler.

On the energy front, Iran also halted gas flow to Turkey for 10 days in January.

Lindenstrauss said that cases such as the revelation of Iranian spies and the temporary halt of gas supply in the winter also increase tensions. 

“Also, one cannot overlook the fact that Turkey is getting closer to the Arab Gulf states — mostly out of economic necessity — which also makes it less tolerant of Iranian attempts to increase its regional influence,” she said.

Despite being part of the Syria-focused Astana peace talks with Iran and Russia, Ankara mostly shares a common perception with Gulf countries of Iran as a threat.

However, Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish program at the Washington Institute, said that Turkey has always separated its relations with Iran from its rapprochement process with Israel.

“Turkey has had competitive relations with Iran in the region. They see each other as two large ‘former imperial’ but ‘currently hegemonic’ powers that have the right to shape regional developments,” he told Arab News.

“Throughout history, both countries avoided direct clashes despite coming very close to conflict in Syria with Turkish troops on one hand and Hezbollah and Iranian proxies on the other coming at close fire range.”

According to Cagaptay, the normalization of ties between Turkey and Israel will first include energy cooperation.

The US government has repeatedly suggested the establishment of alternative pipelines from Israel to Greece passing through Turkey amid sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine that threaten severe shortages across Europe.

“At this stage, Turkey and Israel have similar objectives in Syria. They both have right of passage agreements, which allow Israel to strike Hezbollah and Turkey to strike the Kurdistan Workers’ Party,” he said.

In the meantime, Turkish state-run media channel TRT World recently published an article about whether the Ukraine fallout may lead to Iran gaining the upper hand over Russia in Syria.

“Tehran is trying to take advantage of the Ukraine crisis and strengthen its own position in the Syrian arena. Soon after Russia attacked Ukraine in late February, Iran and the Syrian regime increased their strategic engagement by increasing military diplomacy,” the article said. “At the same time, pro-Iranian fighters are working on relocating to different parts of Syria.”