Actually, it’s not just Istanbul. The Israeli-Iranian spy wars that have been going on all over Turkey for several years keep the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) busy. However, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s request on 13 June for all Israeli citizens to leave Istanbul immediately turned the attention to Istanbul. On the same day, the Israeli National Security Council issued a travel warning for Istanbul; The alert was level-4, which is the highest level.
Thereupon, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu had a telephone conversation with Lapid who is expected to visit Turkey on June 23. Çavuşoğlu, as the first Turkish Foreign Minister to go to Israel after 15 years, met with Lapid on May 25 and the two countries promised to improve their relations. Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Tanju Bilgic also stated that “all necessary security measures are taken by our relevant authorities within the framework of our cooperation mechanisms in the fight against terrorism.” The newspaper Shalom reported that some Israeli tourist groups were trying to be kidnapped but prevented.
Iranian spy network caught in Istanbul
This was followed by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s call on June 18 for Israelis in Turkey to immediately comply with the warnings of the Turkish security services. The Times of Israel newspaper, which reported the news, wrote that some attacks against Israeli targets in Turkey were prevented in the last few days with the cooperation of MIT and Israeli foreign intelligence service MOSSAD.
In fact, earlier this year, on February 11, the Istanbul police announced that 13 people who were preparing to abduct military officials and regime opponents who had taken refuge in Turkey from Iran had been arrested with the intelligence provided by the MIT. According to the news of Anadolu Agency, Colonel Yaghoub Hafez, who fled to Turkey while he was still in the Iranian army and started to live in Denizli, was among the Iranian and Turkish citizens alleged to be related to the Iranian intelligence VAJA. There were other names who had fled to Turkey’s many cities like Yalova and Zonguldak. The spying network was operated by İhsan Sağlam and Iranian citizen Murteza Soltan-Sanjari, under the guise of a security company named “By Sağlam”.
However, the Israeli government’s travel warning to Turkey was issued shortly after another development.
Israel begins to strike in Iran
Colonel Hasan Sayad Khodai, an officer in the elite Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was shot in the head by two attackers on a motorcycle in front of his home in Tehran on May 22. The New York Times claimed on May 25 that, Israeli officials told the United States that they are responsible for the murder. The leak of this news angered Israel.
Another name on Israel’s target list, Brigadier General Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, one of the chefs of the Iranian nuclear program, was killed near Tehran on November 27, 2020. Fakhrizadeh, who was constantly traveling with his army of protection and an armored vehicle, was killed by a machine gun hidden on a pickup nearby triggered via a satellite with a face-recognition Artificial Intelligence program on the day he got into his unarmored private vehicle with his wife. 13 bullets hit Fakhrizadeh’s face, but his wife sitting next to him survived the attack unscathed.
After Fakhrizadeh, Khodai was the most important person killed in Iran by Israel’s spy network.
On July 20, 2020, Iran announced the execution of Mahmoud Mousavi-Majd, who was found guilty of working for the CIA and MOSSAD. According to this, the spy reported the location of Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, who led the Iraq and Syria operations; and the US planes shot down Soleimani, who was nicknamed the “Black Knight” upon this intelligence, on January 3, 2020, at Baghdad Airport.
Continuing the attacks in Turkey
Iran is getting weaker in its spy wars with Israel. The assassination of Khodai showed that it was unable to protect his own spy chiefs in his own capital.
On the other hand, it also shows that Iranian intelligence continues its activities in Turkey. The Iranian spy network we just mentioned, uncovered in Istanbul, is proof of this. In the late 1980s and early 90s, it was known that groups linked to Iranian intelligence were behind a series of assassinations and assassination attempts in Turkey. Even today, the role of Iran in the murder of journalist Uğur Mumcu, who was killed in Ankara on January 24, 1993, is not fully known.
An example of recent actions was the abduction of Iranian helicopter pilot Mehrdad Adarbashi, who took refuge in Turkey to avoid participating in the Syrian war, from Van to Iran, on September 24, 2021, with the joint operation of the MIT and the Police.
Another example was the murder of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, who is considered the prince of the Iranian cyber espionage program, who fled and settled in Turkey, and was shot dead by 11 bullets while walking in Şişli, Esentepe on November 14, 2019. The Istanbul police announced on November 27 (one day after the then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was also the head of the CIA) that those involved in the murder had been caught.
Iranian Saeed Karimian, owner of Gem TV broadcasting in Persian from Istanbul, was also killed by attackers disguised as a woman in a veil, who blocked his vehicle on April 30, 2017 in Maslak.
Are Israeli tourists an easy target?
The final tension has other dimensions as well.
The first signs of Turkey’s transition to a softening policy with Israel were in the field of tourism. With this effect, tourists began to come not only from Israel, but also from countries where there had not been many tourists before, such as the USA, Canada, Spain (which is also a tourism country). Istanbul hotels started to fill up with Israeli tourists as well as Arabs and Iranians after years.
Expressing his satisfaction with this situation a few weeks ago, the manager of one of Istanbul’s important five-star hotels said on condition of anonymity that the business “was stopped suddenly”. Russian and German tourists are keeping Antalya, the Mediterranean tourism center, which is Çavuşoğlu’s electoral district, alive.
It is also noteworthy that these developments came to the fore after Çavuşoğlu’s visit to Israel. Like Iran, Greece is also uncomfortable with Turkey-Israel rapprochement. It is noteworthy that after Çavuşoğlu’s visit, Israeli Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Lior Hayat told a group of Turkish journalists who went to Israel that improving relations with the government of President Tayyip Erdoğan would not adversely affect their cooperation with the Greek and Greek Cypriot governments.
Timing is remarkable
It was also noteworthy that right after Çavuşoğlu’s visit, and just in the days after Lair’s announcements to “Leave Istanbul”, Hayat said that they were not in a hurry to appoint a mutual ambassador with Turkey mentioning Turkey’s relations with Hamas.
Under these conditions, we can get the news that the MIT and the Internal Affairs prevented terrorist attacks in Turkey, not from the Turkish authorities, but from Israeli sources. Doesn’t it seem strange to you that the Turkish security system, which announces every success as soon as possible, is secretive about that?