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Iran: Tensions Heighten Between Tehran And Ankara

By Gokalp Bayramli

Tensions are rising between Turkey and Iran. First, Tehran was angered by statements the Turkish prime minister made last week in which he said he understood why Iranian students had taken to the streets to protest. Then early this week, Iran accused Turkey of air strikes across the border. RFE/RL correspondent Gokalp Bayramli reports from Ankara on developments.

Ankara, 20 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey yesterday formally denied Iranian claims that its air force had bombed an Iranian border post and Iranian villages on Sunday, killing five people and injuring 10 others.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit made a short statement broadcast on Turkish television yesterday afternoon:

"I have talked to the general staff about this. They told me that there has not been any incident."

Turkey's Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu also publicly denied the Iranian claim. After meeting with Iran's ambassador to Ankara, Cakmakoglu said that no Turkish planes violated Iranian air space.

Cakmakoglu conceded that Turkey sometimes organizes operations near the border in what he termed "hot pursuit" of rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). But he said that no operation had infringed on Iranian territory in this case.

The Turkish denials followed claims by Iranian officials that Turkish warplanes bombarded a military outpost at Piranshahr, close to Turkey but along Iran's border with Iraq. They also said a second area five kms inside Iranian territory was hit.

According to Iran's official IRNA news agency, a foreign ministry official has demanded that Turkey provide a formal apology along with a convincing explanation and a pledge to repair the damage.

Additionally, Iran's armed forces issued a statement condemning the attack as a violation of international law. The Iranian Armed Forces' General Command said Iran "reserves the right to respond" if there is no proper explanation from Ankara.

The Turkish military general staff yesterday issued a statement claiming that Iranian officials were attempting to create an artificial crisis in order to distract attention away from Iran's internal problems. It was an apparent reference to protests by Iranian students, who turned out in the thousands in Tehran and other cities in a series of demonstrations earlier this month. The students demanded reforms and in some cases openly criticized the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other conservative clerics.

Turkish Prime Minister Ecevit last week expressed sympathy for the students and suggested that their criticisms of the hard-line clerics who hold ultimate power in Iran were legitimate. Ecevit spoke on Turkish television last week:

"The Iranian people are very sophisticated. They have a rich history. I believe they can't live under a repressive regime. Therefore, their movement is natural. But we cannot, and don't want to interfere in their internal affairs. We hope these events can be good for the Iranian people."

His comments prompted protests from Tehran. Iranian authorities have since claimed that the protests were, in fact, engineered in Turkey and in other foreign countries.

IRNA said on Sunday that "according to confessions and information received by the Intelligence Ministry, those who had an active role in the recent riots were guided and supported from abroad." It was further claimed that several "infiltrators" arrested during the unrest had attended "counterrevolutionary" meetings during visits to the United States, Turkey and other European countries.

Adding to the stream of bilateral accusations, Turkish officials claim that Iran has harbored PKK rebels, who are fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey. Iran has denied the accusation.

While tensions are heightened between Ankara and Tehran, it seems unlikely that Iran will take any precipitous action. Turkey -- as a NATO member and regional military power -- would be a dangerous adversary.