The deadly Aug. 20 bombing in Gaziantep is still sending shockwaves through the country and the region as a whole. In Turkey, a new round of debate on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its strategy has begun, closely linked to the developments in Syria, especially the emergence of autonomous Kurdish areas along the Turkish-Syrian border. Many suspect a link between the Bashar al-Assad regime, keen to punish Turkey for its strong support of the Syrian opposition, and the PKK, which may have been acting in Gaziantep as a subcontractor for Damascus.
However, it is not only Syria under suspicion. Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç has admitted that Iran is also considered “a potential source that could have had a hand in such an attack.”
In general, I am put off by these kinds of efforts to locate the source of problems abroad. It reminds me of the automatic reflex of autocratic regimes under pressure: to cover up their own mistakes and responsibilities and try to unite the country behind a common aversion to outside powers, aiming to split the country or harm its interests.
In this particular case, however, I am not so sure.
This is only partially related to a report in the Daily Telegraph last week in which Western intelligence sources alleged that Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has given orders to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to send a warning to several countries, including Turkey, that are actively trying to push Syrian dictator Assad out of power. Iran, as we all know, is one of Assad’s key allies. Most of the time, the disclosure of this sort of information is well planned, and it may not have been a coincidence that the news of Iran’s intention to launch terrorist attacks in specific countries was published on the same day Arınç referred to potential Iranian involvement in the Gaziantep attack.
The problem with the story about Khamenei’s orders is that it could be true.
In a long and well-argued article printed in American magazine The National Interest last week, Ray Takeyh, Iran specialist and senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, made the point that Iran’s foreign policy is still -- or, better, again -- being guided by the same old ideological fervor that looks for confrontation in order to strengthen the position of Iran’s revolutionary elite at home.
Takeyh goes back to the days of Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s and, based on several concrete examples, shows that Iran’s leader deliberately fostered tensions with neighbors or outside powers to show that the Islamic Republic was in danger and that only strict obedience to the harsh rules set by the clerical elite could save the country. According to Khomeini, integration of Iran in the international community was not in the interests of Iran’s ruling theocrats because it would undermine Iran’s Islamic culture. Better to isolate the country and keep the revolutionary flame burning than to stick to international treaty obligations or give in to Western sensibilities.
That all changed under his successors Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, who both, as Takeyh puts it, tried “to transcend Khomeini’s divisive legacy and replace ideological antagonisms with policies rooted in pragmatism and self-interest.”
Iran’s conservatives, under the leadership of the new supreme leader Ali Khamenei, resisted these changes strongly, and got a chance to subvert Khatami’s agenda when he failed to deliver on some of his promises, and after George W. Bush put Iran on his axis-of-evil list in 2002, thereby dealing a lethal blow to Tehran’s reformers.
In 2005 and 2009, the presidential elections were won by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the representative of a new generation of pious young men, often called the “New Right,” that brought to the scene, in Takeyh’s words, “a combustible mix of Islamist ideology, strident nationalism and a deep suspicion of the West.” The new leadership sees Khomeini as their role model, including his foreign policies of self-assertion and defiance, because they realize that a revitalized strategy of confrontation might be the only way for the governing elite to survive and resist pushes for change coming from the majority of the Iranian public, which does not share the ideological passion of Khomeini’s heirs.
Takeyh is convinced that, in order to hold on to power, the new revolutionary diehards have returned to the old recipe of overturning the regional order and challenging the existing international system.
If Takeyh is right, as I think he is, we should not be surprised to see more of Iran’s dirty fingerprints on future explosive events in the region.
(Joost Lagendijk is a writer for Today’s Zaman where this article was published on August 26, 2012)