A new report has sent a jolt through the world of spies and spy-handlers, with revelations of a major betrayal by a key ally of the United States and the West. That ally is Turkey, a member of NATO, a candidate for membership in the European Union and nation with close ties to the United States and, until a few years ago, a good friend of Israel.
The well-connected Washington Post writer David Ignatius reported the shocking news that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave Iran the names of as many as 10 Iranians who were spying for Israel. The spies had been traveling to Turkey for meetings with officers of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.
In 2012, Tehran announced it had found a spy ring working for Israel. Since then there have been several reports of executions in Iran of men charged with spying for Israel.
The story comes just days after a Wall Street Journal report that American officials believe Turkey’s powerful spymaster, Hakan Fidan, handed Iran crucial intelligence collected not just by Israel but also by the United States.
If the reports are correct, Turkey is not just failing in its duties as a NATO ally, it is also acting as an enemy of the United States and its European allies, members of NATO. If the allegations are true, Ankara undermined a campaign focused on what is probably the most important of all strategic concerns for the West: preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu denied The Washington Post report, saying it was part of a campaign to discredit his country. And Mustafa Varank, a close adviser to Erdogan, blasted the story as “incoherent,” tweeting that, “The intelligence world operates according to agreements.”
Indeed, relations between intelligence agencies unfold on a different level from the normal ups and downs of political life. That was the case as relations between Israel and Turkey deteriorated in recent years, but ties between spies continued to function.
Israel and Turkey developed close intelligence links in the first decade of the Jewish state’s existence. The relations had survived the profound acrimony that marked relations between the two countries since Erdogan and his Islam-based Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power. Erdogan endeavored to raise his country’s profile and increase its influence. A key element of his strategy included fulminating against Israel in public forums and championing the Palestinian cause.
Relations stretched to the breaking point in 2010 when Israeli forces boarded a Turkish boat, part of a flotilla trying to break the Gaza blockade. Nine Turks were killed in the clashes. The U.S. administration worked to repair the deep rift between two key Middle East allies. Last March, during President Obama’s visit to Israel, he arranged a telephone call in which Netanyahu apologized to Erdogan for operational mistakes in response to the flotilla.
Relations, however, remain very tense, and the latest news will only make them worse.
Former Mossad chief Danny Yatom characterized Turkey’s reported revelations of the spy network as “unheard of” in the annals of intelligence.
Although personal and commercial links between Israel and Turkey continue, relations between the two governments are unlikely to return to normal anytime soon. What is less clear is what will happen to ties between Washington and Ankara.
According to Ignatius, American officials have known that Erdogan and Fidan had exposed the Israeli spies, viewing the incident as “an unfortunate intelligence loss.” Washington did not complain to Turkey, and President Obama has maintained particularly warm relations with Erdogan.
Turkey is uniquely positioned at the hinge between East and West, and Washington wants to secure Turkish cooperation in dealing with the many challenges in the region, including the civil war in Syria and the conflict with Iran. Still, it is troubling that U.S. policymakers would ignore a government’s actions so clearly against U.S. interests.
In the spy world, however, Turkey’s behavior is likely to leave its mark. Yatom wondered aloud, “Who is going to trust them now? Who is going to share sensitive information with them?”
In the end, relations between nations are based on shared interests. Turkey, it seems, has judged that hurting Israel is so important that it justifies undermining its allies. As long as that is the case, its interests diverge from America’s, and the closeness between the two governments is not justified.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television.