On Friday night, when the Israeli government usually shuts down for Shabbat, the Prime Minister’s office issued an emergency briefing. An attack on Israeli tourists in Istanbul was ‘imminent’, it said. Israelis in Turkey were ordered to stay in their hotel rooms for fear of assassins, sent by Iran. There was no attack that night, as it happened, but the threat to the many Israelis in Turkey remains.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has become increasingly enraged by Mossad’s assassinations of IRGC officers in Iran, and decided that the best and easiest way to get revenge is to target the thousands of Israelis in Istanbul. Both Turkish and Israeli intelligence confirm this.
This is not as strange as it might sound. Iran has a border and visa-free travel with Turkey and its intelligence services maintain an active presence there. For years, it’s been assassinating and abducting Iranian dissidents on Turkish soil. The recent disappearance of Iranian journalist Mohammad Bagher Moradi, who had sheltered for nine years in Turkey, is thought to have been carried out by Iran.
The challenge facing Turkish and Israeli security services isn’t just the enormous number of targets to protect (Turkey is a very popular destination for Israelis), but also the fact that the potential assassins may not be Iranian operatives. Word is out on the streets of Istanbul (a city of well over 15 million people, including millions of refugees and migrants) that there’s a bounty on Israeli tourists. A hit could be carried out by any roving gunman. Istanbul remains a hub for networks that smuggled Isis volunteers to Syria, and was until recently a major base for Hamas, before the government limited their freedoms.
As the shadow war between Israel and Iran intensifies and as Naftali Bennett’s government fractures (his coalition fell apart this week), one interesting development is that after a long estrangement, Israel and Turkey are tentatively working together again. After Friday’s shock, for example, the Israeli President Isaac Herzog called President Erdogan to thank him for his co-operation.
Israeli intelligence officials have made multiple recent visits to Turkey. But the two intelligence services, though cordial, remain wary. Mossad hasn’t forgotten that a decade ago, Turkey’s MIT service disclosed to the Iranians the identities of sources within Iran who would meet their Mossad handlers in Turkey. The man who allegedly gave up Israel’s agents, Erdogan’s confidante and MIT chief Hakan Fidan – known in Mossad circles as the ‘Iranian intelligence’s station chief in Ankara’ – remains in post and is now working with Israel.
‘No one is under any illusions that Erdogan or Fidan have suddenly joined the Zionist movement’ is something you hear repeatedly from Israeli officials. Israel has a long experience of dealing with Erdogan: diplomats who engaged with him in the 1990s, when he was mayor of Istanbul, felt he was eager for good relations. That rapidly changed when he became Prime Minister in 2003 and President in 2014.
Under Erdogan, a robust alliance between Israel and Turkey, which had lasted for nearly half a century, ended. Seeing himself as the leader of the Muslim world, Erdogan assumed patronage of the Palestinian cause, accusing Israel of ‘genocide’ in Gaza and using anti-Semitic language. Israel formed a new alliance with Turkey’s rivals, Greece and Cyprus, holding joint military exercises and planning with them a natural-gas pipeline under the eastern Mediterranean. Israel has also been improving its ties with ‘moderate’ Arab-Sunni regimes in the region who have no time for the Turkish President.
Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood made him the enemy of Egypt and the other Arab regimes who saw the movement as the perpetrator of the Arab Spring. He found himself out in the cold. He also failed at playing America off against Russia, when the purchase of a Russian air-defence system led to the Trump administration cancelling Turkey’s contract for advanced F-35 stealth fighter jets.
No wonder, then, that Erdogan needed to change strategy, but the timing of this tentative alliance is good for Israel too. Naftali Bennett’s approach to Iran has been the ‘Octopus Doctrine’, designed to target the Iranian regime as well as its nuclear programme: ‘the head rather than the tentacles’. There was an attack in February on an Iranian drone base near the city of Kermanshah, followed by a series of assassinations and attacks on IRGC officers involved in directing Iran’s proxies abroad. Of these, it was specifically the assassination of Sayad Khodayee, the deputy commander of an IRGC unit specialising in international operations, which sparked Iran’s desire for revenge.
Israel hasn’t taken responsibility for these attacks, but officials in Jerusalem are more candid in off-the-record briefings. ‘It’s important that everyone in the region, our enemies and our allies, understands that Iran won’t be immune any more while it plans to attack us from neighbouring countries,’ one tells me. This has led to a high level of suspicion of any mysterious death or explosion in Iran, such as the deaths of two scientists, one who was involved in nuclear research and the other in drone development, in separate food-poisoning incidents last month.
Israeli security sources stress that with the dilapidated situation of Iran’s infrastructure, explosions of power stations and factories and deaths caused by bad food hygiene are to be expected, as are executions and suicides of officers blamed for security breaches. Israel is also far from being alone among Iran’s enemies. But just as it’s in Iran’s interests to sow fear and uncertainty among the Israelis in Turkey, so it’s in Israel’s interests to keep the Iranians guessing too.