Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Turkey's silence over Hezbollah's 'Istanbul bombing'

A rather dramatic security story from Turkey: the leading Italian daily  Corriere della Sera has reported that, acording to US sources, the bomb which injured eight civilians in Istanbul on May 26 was not the work of the Kurdish militant group the PKK, as believed. Instead, it was a botched assassination attempt against the Israeli Consul in Istanbul, carried out by the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah on the orders of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

The alleged attack was in revenge for the May 2010 assassination of Masoud Alimohammadi, an Iranian nuclear physicist, in Tehran. That attack was blamed on Israel's spy service Mossad. The Istanbul bomb attack was planned as retaliation by the elite Revolutionary Guards, who monitored Moshe Kahmi's movements before contracting the attack out to members of Hezbollah.

This all sounds rather like a deliberately complicated spy novel, but given the globe-spanning proxy war between Israel and Iran it isn't impossible. What is significant is the silence of the Turkish government. Reports suggest that Turkish intelligence soon realised that Hezbollah was behind the attack and backtracked on their initial assumption that the PKK was responsible. And yet no public accusations have been made against either Hezbollah or Iran.

Although Ankara probably made its complaints in private, the absence of public allegations against Tehran is striking, given that a number of innocent Turkish citizens were almost killed. Consider the reverse scenario: that Israel attempted to knock off an Iranian diplomat with a bicycle bomb in a busy Istanbul street. Turkish-Israeli relations would hit rock bottom, and make the current bilateral relationship look like a cordial embrace.

Turkish-Iranian relations are indeed a sensitive issue. Turkey prizes the access which its economic clout, geopolitical influence and Islamic credentials grant it in Tehran; more bluntly, it is also increasingly dependent on Iranian gas. Avoiding even a perceived confrontation with Iran is a pillar of Turkey's Middle Eastern policy. Similarly Hezbollah's impeccable revolutionary and populist credentials chime well with Prime Minister Erdoğan's independent, assertive and, arguably, 'anti-Western' style of politics.

This doesn't mean approval or complicity within the Turkish government. Nor to suggest that stylistic affinities with Hezbollah define Turkey's approach to terrorist bombings., for example However it does show that when it comes to dealing with its awkward eastern neighbour, and when it comes to preserving its carefully cultivated image in the 'Arab street', Ankara seems to believe that discretion is the better part of valour.

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