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Turkey: a polarised society.

Iran has long been accused of trying to export its Islamic revolution to secular Turkey. Many Turks believe Iran is behind a number of terrorist attacks in the country.

FOR MANY ORDINARY Turks the word Iran has become synonymous with radical Islamic terror ever since the assassination in late January of Turkey's leading pro-secular journalist, Ugur Mumcu.

A little known group called "Islamic Action" claimed responsibility for the planting of the plastic explosives under Mumcu's car, which blew his body to bits. The group, described as an umbrella organisation for all radical Islamic activities sponsored by Iran, was first heard of in 1987 after the killing of a prominent pro-secular academic, Professor Muammer Aksoy.

It, therefore, came as no surprise when interior minister Ismet Sezgin announced that members of the group arrested in connection with the killing had been trained in "assassination techniques in a high security camp in Iran".

Iran has, indeed, long been accused of trying to export its Islamic revolution to secular Turkey. In so doing it is alleged to have been the secret hand behind the killings of two prominent secular writers, Turhan Dursun and Cetin Emec as well as those of another pro-secular academic, Bahriye Ucok.

But the death of Mumcu -- one of Turkey's most respected investigative journalists -- who from his daily column in the newspaper Cumhuriyet tirelessly campaigned against pro-Islamic fundamentalist forces, as well as against the Turkish mafia and Kurdish separatism, has triggered an unprecedented backlash against radical Islam and Iran's efforts to promote it.

"Turkey will never become Iran", "Mullahs back to Iran" were among the many anti-Iranian slogans chanted during a torrent of demonstrations staged in the wake of Mumcu's death.

The scale of the rallies that sent millions of Turks from all different walks of life to the streets, marks a political re-awakening among a people long silenced by the military takeover of 1980.

The greater worry for the Turkish government, however, is that it pressages the growing polarisation of Turkish society by pitting those loyal to the secular regime established by the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, against the increasingly influential pro-Islamic fundamentalist movement in the country.

Prime minister Suleyman Demirel's coalition government has since come under increasing popular pressure to take tough action against Iran. The measures being called for, include the imposition of visa restrictions on incoming Iranians as well as the explusion of various Iranian diplomats thought to be members of the Iranian secret service, Savama.

But from the start the government has sought to avoid an open confrontation with Iran. Instead, the Turkish foreign minister, Hikmet Cetin, presented his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Velayati during a meeting in Pakistan last February with a dossier containing evidence linking the killings to Iran. So far, Tehran has yet to come up with an official response to the evidence.

In the meantime, the Iranian government has loudly denied any connection with the murders and was joined by the Iranian press in blaming "foreign powers" induding "pro-Zionist forces" and the CIA of trying to disrupt relations between the two countries.

In a thinly veiled expression of his government's displeasure, First Vice-President Hasan Habibi failed to show up at the last minute for a scheduled visit to Ankara in February. Neither the Iranian embassy nor the Turkish foreign ministry could come up with an explanation.

But Demirel said that Habibi's failure to come could be "interpreted as a reaction of guilt" and warned that if Iran did not come forth with "some information that would enlighten Turkish public opinion and the government" relations between Turkey and Iran would be seriously jeopardised.

The war of words between Turkey and Iran comes at a time when both are engaged in an open war for influence in the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union. Turkey's efforts to promote its secular free market democracy has the firm backing of its Western allies, who are increasingly nervous about Iran's recent arms build-up. But Turkish officials privately complain that this has yet to be translated into financial support for Turkish projects in the republics.

Of these Azerbaijan, which is the only mainly Shiite Republic, is Iran's Achilles heel. Close on 40% of Iran's population is made up of Azeri Turks. The openly pro-Turkish president of Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Ali Elchibey, says that his "maximum goal" one day is to "reunite" the two Azerbaijans. Such talk is likely to have sent shivers down the mullahs' spines.

Fears among Iran's rulers are that Turkey will use its influence over Azerbaijan to opportunistically flash the Azeri card at them.

The Iranian government is according to Western sources in Baku engaged in an active campaign to destabilise Elchibey's government. This includes secretly arming the Armenians, who over the past five years have been locked in a bloody war with the Azeris to win control over, the mainly Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan.

Other than its backing of radical Islamic currents, Iran's main source of leverage against Turkey is the same used by Syria and Iraq, namely the Kurds. According to Turkish government sources the outlawed Marxist/Leninist Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK has camps in Iran. But their exact number remains unknown.

The PKK guerrillas have long used their bases in Iran to stage cross-border raids against Turkish security forces who they have been fighting over the past nine years to set up an independent Kurdistan.

But the cross-border attacks have all but stopped since the signing in Tehran of an agreement late last year between Sezgin and the Iranian interior minister, Abdullah Nouri.

Tehran's decision to play ball was dictated in part by a shared concern with Ankara over developments in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Fears in both capitals as well as in Syria, which like Iran and Turkey has a Kurdish minority, is that under the umbrella of Western air cover, the Iraqi Kurds are quietly consolidating their statehood.

In a clear warning to the West that they would not tolerate the dismemberment of Iraq, the foreign ministers of all three countries have held two meetings to "discuss" recent developments in Iraq. During both, they openly denounced recent moves by the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an umbrella group for all the Iraqi opposition parties, including the Shiites and the Kurds, to form a government in exile, which foresees a federal status for the Kurds.

But for how long shared interests can continue to justify Turkey's measured response to Iran's meddling in its domestic affairs is a question that is beginning to weigh more and more heavily on the minds of policy makers in Ankara.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs
Author:Zaman, Amberin
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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