Spy games: How a busted Israeli intelligence ring could destabilize the region

Theunis Bates
No love lost between these two.

Israel and Turkey's already fractious relationship has just hit a new low.

According to The Washington Post, the Turkish government deliberately blew the cover of an Israeli spy ring deep inside Iran last year, dealing a hammer blow to the Jewish state's attempt to gather intelligence on Tehran's nuclear program.

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Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the allegations lacked "any foundation." There was no immediate comment from Israel.

This report is just the latest sign that the two former allies — who have shared intelligence and conducted joint military operations since the late 1950s — are becoming fierce enemies. Relations started to fray in 2009, when Turkey's Islamist-leaning Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan began berating Israel over its occupation of Palestinian territory.

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"The Turks made a strategic decision...to seek the leadership of our region, in the Middle East," Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin said this week, "and they chose the convenient anti-Israeli card in order to build up leadership."

The following year, Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish-organized flotilla of aid ships trying to break Israel's longstanding naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish civilians were shot dead, sparking outrage in Ankara.

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Despite those tensions, Israel continued to run part of its spy network through Turkey. Iranian spies routinely met with their Mossad case officers in the country, meetings that were likely monitored by Turkish intelligence agents. "The Mossad, after more than 50 years of cooperation with Turkey, never imagined the Turks would 'shop' Israeli agents to a hostile power," says the Post's David Ignatius.

Yet that's exactly what happened, according to Ignatius' sources. In early 2012, Erdogan's government handed Tehran the identities of 10 Iranians who had been seen meeting with Israeli spies. That April, Iran announced that it had broken up a 15-member Israeli spy ring responsible for the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists.

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It's not known if the arrests were linked to the Turkish leak, or what happened to the suspected spies. "Most of these Iranians," says Michael Rubin at Commentary, "likely died horrendous deaths."

If Ignatius' report is correct, says Yossi Melman in The Jerusalem Post, Turkey is guilty of "the basest act of betrayal imaginable."

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Exactly why Erdogan decided to expose Israel's spies is not yet clear. U.S. officials, according to Ignatius, "were never sure whether the Turkish disclosure was done in retaliation for the flotilla incident or was part of a broader deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations."

The Jerusalem Post's Melman suspects the latter, noting that Erdogan's "obsessive animus toward Israel and his anti-Semitic tendencies are known to all." Earlier this summer, for instance, when the prime minister was facing growing protests at home over his increasingly authoritarian policies, he lashed out at the mysterious "Interest Rate Lobby" — "a not-too-subtle reference to international Jewry which Erdogan believes controls the markets," says Rubin.

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Erdogan's spy chief since 2010, Hakan Fidan, has also tried to strengthen ties with Tehran. "Several years ago," says Ignatius, "Israeli intelligence officers are said to have described him facetiously to CIA officials as 'the MOIS station chief in Ankara,' a reference to Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security."

It's those links with Iran that trouble Rubin, who notes that the U.S. continues to deal with Fidan on sensitive matters, and that the Obama administration — which views Turkey as a crucial ally in dealing with the mess in neighboring Syria — hasn't reprimanded Erdogan over the revelations. From this point on, says Rubin, "trusting Turkish officials with intelligence would be about as wise as renewing Edward Snowden's security clearance."

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