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Iran: Crisis With Turkey Cools But Relations Remain Volatile

Security officials from Iran and Turkey met yesterday in Ankara amid signs bilateral relations are improving. Analysts say the thorny issue of Iranian support for the rebel PKK remains unresolved.

Prague, 11 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Security officials from Turkey and Iran met yesterday for two days of regularly scheduled talks amid signs that bilateral relations are improving.

Tensions between the two soared last month when Tehran accused Turkey of bombing sites near a Kurdish-inhabited village in Iran, killing five people.

Turkish officials denied the charges, saying their bombs had not struck Iran but rather were aimed at bases of the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Iraq. Officials also accused Iranian officers of training rebels at the base.

The charges and counter-charges escalated when Iran later seized two Turkish border guards it accused of being part of a Turkish force trying to penetrate Iran. Turkey said the two soldiers had crossed the border unintentionally.

In signs tensions are easing, Iran released (August 9) the two soldiers in good condition. The two countries have also formed a joint commission to investigate the bombing dispute.

But analysts say that even as the two seem ready now to seek better relations, the real dispute which sparked the crisis -- Turkey's determination to oust the PKK from Iran -- remains as far from being solved as ever.

William Hale, an expert on Turkish affairs at London University's School of Oriental Studies told RFE/RL that Iran has provided low-level support for the PKK for years and Turkey is now determined to end it. Speaking by telephone from Istanbul, he said Turkey's determination has only grown in recent months as it has successfully ousted the PKK from Syria and routinely makes sweeps in northern Iraq, leaving Iran as the PKK's last hope for bases on the Turkish border. William Hale said:

"The PKK has been ousted from Syria and from Syrian-controlled Lebanon and it is having quite a lot of difficulty holding on in northern Iraq, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where they have a situation where both the Turkish forces and the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Masood Barzani are against the PKK. So, in a way, Iran is reduced to being the only external base which is a neighbor of Turkey from which the PKK can operate."

Ankara last year used a threat of military force against Damascus to force President Hafez Assad to oust PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan from Syria. That move ultimately led to Turkey's capturing Ocalan and then to sentencing him to death two months ago. Ocalan is currently in prison near Istanbul.

The analyst said Ankara now hopes to repeat its Syrian success with Tehran, particularly by forcing it to evict Ocalan's brother, Osman, who is believed to be based in Iran. Osman has been among the hardest-line PKK leaders seeking to continue to fight Ankara despite Abdullah's recent calls for the movement to end its armed struggle. That makes him a prime target in Ankara's battle to decapitate the PKK's hardline leadership. Hale said:

"There is quite a dispute going on within the PKK itself about what policy they should adopt in the present situation. Initially, Osman Ocalan took the position that he disagreed with his brother and wanted to carry on the armed struggle. Now, within the PKK there is something called a presidency council, which consists of most of the second-rank leaders of the organization, and they held a meeting recently which included Osman Ocalan which said they would apply Abdullah Ocalan's orders, suggesting that Osman Ocalan had now changed his position on this. But one never quite knows because there are certainly elements within the PKK who would like to carry on the struggle."

The PKK announced last week that it was withdrawing fighters from Turkey in accordance with Abdullah Ocalan's public call to do so. Analysts say the announcement has only further strengthened Turkish fears that the movement now will relocate to Iran.

But Hale said that Ankara's strategy of pressing Tehran to close its territory to the PKK may have little chance of success. He said the reason is that Tehran's support for the PKK is less a matter of Iranian state policy than a reflection of the ongoing power struggle within Iran itself between conservatives and moderates. Hale said:

"The difficulty is that Iran's support for the PKK is part of an internal struggle for power within Iran. In other words, one of the aims of [relatively moderate] President Khatami and the reformist wing would be to reconstruct their relations with the Western powers, which for the present purposes include Turkey. If the conservatives can obstruct this, for instance by supporting the PKK against Turkey, then they can use the PKK in effect as a means of achieving their internal political aims."

Hales said that the divided personality of Iranian politics has sabotaged Turkish attempts to build security accords with Iran before and is likely to continue to do so.

"This has always been the problem in Turkey's relationship with Iran. At the official level they can secure agreements and, in fact, in principle they have an agreement of quite a longstanding nature with Iran on border security. The difficulty is, from [the Turkish] point of view, that it just doesn't seem to be applied because we don't quite know who is in command in Tehran."

Hale said this makes it almost certain that despite any agreements reached today in the security meeting in Ankara, the dispute fueling the crisis between Turkey and Iran is not likely to go away soon. And until it does, he says, tensions along their border are almost certain to periodically flare up, just as they did last month.