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Iran: Alleged Turkish Attack Remains Mystery

By Charles Recknagel and Rod Shahidi

One of the most mysterious stories in international politics recently has been Iran's charges that Turkish warplanes struck inside its territory on Sunday and Ankara's firm denials that any such attacks took place. RFE/RL correspondents report that, at week's end, the mystery is as far from being solved as ever, even as it has heightened tensions between the two neighbors.

Prague, 22 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Did Turkey bomb Iran or did Tehran simply invent the story?

That is the question many analysts are asking about Iran's allegations that Turkey bombed a site just inside northern Iran on Sunday, killing five people. The charges have added to an already sharp war of words between the two neighbors that has raising regional tensions and which shows no sign of abating.

The mystery began Sunday when Tehran dramatically announced that four Turkish war planes had struck an area outside the mostly Kurdish town of Piranshahr, killing four civilians, and a nearby base, killing one soldier. The Iranian government demanded formal apologies from Ankara and a pledge to repair the damage.

The news of a sudden Turkish air strike into Iran surprised many observers because there have been no confirmed Turkish air strikes into Iran since 1994, when Turkey admitted hitting rebel Kurd camps there and killing Iranians by mistake.

Turkey's official reaction has only added to the puzzlement. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit on Monday categorically ruled out the possibility that a Turkish plane struck inside Iran, saying there could be no question of such a thing.

But Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu sent mixed signals, saying that quite apart from the question of a raid, Tehran should understand that Ankara is concerned about what he called terrorists on Iranian soil and could take action.

His remarks appeared to repeat Turkish charges that Iran harbors fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been waging a 15-year rebellion for a Kurdish homeland in southern Turkey.

Since then, the war of words between Tehran and Ankara has only grown sharper, even as the facts of the case remain as vague as ever. Iran has twice called in Turkey's charge d'affaires in Tehran to present figures on deaths and damage from the alleged raid, but has presented no evidence publicly to confirm that any Turkish attack took place.

That leaves many analysts trying to judge whether or not the incident happened by weighing Turkey's motives for carrying out any such strike and Tehran's motives for claiming it did.

Sharam Chubin is an analyst at the Center for Security Policy in Geneva. Chubin told RFE/RL's Persian Service that Turkey could have struck Iran because Ankara believes it is close to destroying the PKK after sentencing its leader Abdullah Ocalan to death last month and is determined to root out any remaining PKK support bases in neighboring countries.

Turkey forced Ocalan out of Syria last year with a military ultimatum to Damascus, and the Turkish army is currently conducting one of its periodic sweeps into northern Iraq. The analyst believes Turkey may have felt the time was opportune to move against Iran now while Tehran is still reeling from last week's civil unrest, its worst since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Chubin said:

"Turkey, of course, considers the Kurdish issue as very important indeed in terms of its own domestic politics right now with the Ocalan trial, and it is clear that Iran's alleged support for the PKK is something that annoys the Turks a lot. It could be that they want to try military pressure on Tehran...They may think this is a good time now to put pressure on Iran when Iran is domestically preoccupied."

Turkey may also have felt it had nothing to lose by acting now because the unrest in Iran has -- quite independently of the alleged bombing -- already sparked a major diplomatic row between the two countries.

The Turkish government, which is staunchly secular, has been one of the most outspoken countries in expressing support for Iranian students demanding greater liberties from Iran's clerical regime. Ecevit infuriated Tehran last week by saying he believes Iranians cannot live under a repressive regime.

Tehran, for its part, has promised it will deliver an appropriate response to what it calls foreign expressions of support for unrest in Iran. It has since charged the United States and Israel with fanning last week's protests -- which turned into riots -- and alleged Turkish involvement. Iranian television on Monday broadcast a confession from an arrested student leader, Manouchehr Mohammadi, who said he had been in Turkey last year.

But analysts say that if this background gives Ankara reason to strike in Iraq now, it also gives Tehran ample motives of its own for claiming it has been attacked. The allegations help strengthen the argument by Iranian hard-liners that foreign powers are actively intervening in Iran's affairs and also help fan Iranian patriotism to help quell any further domestic unrest. Chubin says:

"It would certainly help the Iranian government recreate unity at a time when it is very, very divided on what has been happening domestically if they could find a foreign enemy...It could well be that the Turks feel that Iran is in a weak position right now and that they can do something. And the Iranian reaction would be, of course, to immediately focus on that to get away from the domestic problems."

Analysts say it may be impossible to ever fully know whether Turkey struck into Iran this week or not. But they believe there is little danger that the war of words will lead to a military showdown between the two sides.

David Barchard is a regional expert and a long-time correspondent with the Financial Times in Turkey. He told RFE/RL's Persian Service that despite their differences, Iran and Turkey also have a centuries-long habit of living peacefully together, even in anger.

"A history of relations of good neighborliness going back nearly 400 years now suggests that the Turks want a quiet time with Iran and a good partnership, and they recognize that one of the major reasons is that the transit routes for both countries lie across the other."

In a hopeful sign that both sides will peacefully try to solve their dispute over the alleged air attack, Turkey and Iran have now decided to set up an ad hoc committee to investigate the incident.

(Rod Shahidi is a news editor with RFE/RL's Persian Service. Sharon Tabari, Persian Service correspondent in London, contributed to this story, along with William Samii, an Iran expert with RFE/RL's Communications Division.)