(February 20, 2022 / JNS) Iran’s assassination plots are windows to its fears. On February 11, Turkish media reported that MİT, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, foiled an assassination attempt on Yair Geller, a Turkish-Israeli businessman. The plot was a response to the murder of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, in November 2020, allegedly at the hands of Israel’s Mossad. By targeting dual Israeli-Turkish nationality on Turkish soil, Iran was also sowing seeds of discord between Ankara and Jerusalem.
Had Iran’s assassins accomplished their mission, the setback in Israeli-Turkish relations would indeed have been severe. Many in Israel have grown accustomed to seeing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey as an enemy power, controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and inveterately hostile to the very existence of a Jewish state. In such an atmosphere, Tehran could reliably count on influential voices in Israel to interpret Geller’s murder as the direct result of Erdoğan’s policy of allowing Hamas leaders to operate on Turkish soil.
It turned out that the plot had the opposite effect. Far from driving a wedge between Jerusalem and Ankara, it has brought them closer. For his part, Geller has enthusiastically cooperated with Erdoğan’s recent efforts to improve relations with Jerusalem. Geller told reporters that Mossad agents encouraged him to return to Israel for security reasons, but instead chose to stay in Istanbul, the city he loves. To Israelis, Geller’s statement conveyed confidence in the Turkish authorities; for the Turks, it presented an Israeli who felt a bond of loyalty to Turkey.
In Tehran, the vision these messages evoke is terrifying: a world in which Ankara and Jerusalem find common ground. What are the sources of this fear?
The plot against Geller probably began to percolate in Tehran immediately after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. In this conflict, Azerbaijan, an ally of Turkey and Israel, defeated Armenia, an ally of Russia and Iran. Even seasoned observers did not foresee the benefits that advanced Turkish and Israeli technology had given Azerbaijan.
With the exception of Armenia itself, no power was more shocked by these advantages than Iran. Ethnic Azerbaijanis make up about a third of Iran’s population. A significant portion identifies strongly with Azerbaijan and sees Turkey and Israel as friends, not enemies. Tehran’s rulers have already found the loyalty that so many Iranian citizens feel toward Azerbaijan unacceptable. Discovering, moreover, that Azerbaijan also has a superior army to Iranian forces (an army, moreover, with deep ties to Iran’s regional rivals) was even more insufferable.
But Iran’s fears did not stop there. Three weeks after the end of the war, Israel eliminated Fakhrizadeh. This operation was only the latest in a series of operations, including acts of sabotage of Iran’s nuclear facilities and the capture of the archives of its nuclear weapons program, demonstrating Israel’s extraordinary reach in Iranian society. Few things stoke paranoia like being the Mossad’s prime target.
In other words, recent developments in Iran’s neighborhood have taught Tehran that Ankara and Jerusalem have the combined ability to shake the Islamic Republic to its core. So far, however, an alignment between Ankara and Jerusalem has remained a purely theoretical possibility. Relations between the two have been catastrophic for more than a decade. The fusion of Turkish and Israeli military technologies on display in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War was entirely the result of a lone Azerbaijani initiative. To our knowledge, the Turkish and Israeli military did not cooperate in any way to create the hybrid force that suddenly appeared on the battlefield in 2020.
Killing Geller was Tehran’s way of ensuring that Turkey and Israel would have no clue about the packaging of the Azerbaijani model and its marketing elsewhere, in the United Arab Emirates, for example.
Through its Houthi proxy, Iran has recently targeted the UAE several times with ballistic missiles. Thanks to their military cooperation with the United States, the Emiratis have access to defensive systems which, at least so far, have succeeded in preventing the worst, namely a massacre of civilians in Abu Dhabi or Dubai at the 9/11 scale. terrorist attacks. But the Emiratis are acutely aware that the Biden administration staunchly refuses to blame Iran for the attacks, let alone conduct deterrence on behalf of America’s ally.
On the contrary, the Biden team is about to close the deal on Iran’s nuclear program that will generously reward the Islamic Republic and embolden its worst inclinations. The UAE and other US allies are therefore becoming defense orphans. For now, their only avenues of recourse are to hedge against Iran, China or both.
But the Israeli-Turkish rapprochement has the potential to create a much more desirable alternative. If the rapprochement continues, the UAE could work with the Turks and Israelis to create a deterrent capability. In this scenario, the Israelis would bring their four-star military technology, including the Iron Dome missile defense system, not to mention their unparalleled Iranian intelligence penetration and cyber capabilities. The Turks, meanwhile, would offer their geopolitical clout – a quality no other regional power can match – combined with the exquisite weapons systems and military prowess they have transferred to the Azerbaijanis.
For now, this scenario is more of a hazy dream than a concrete plan. But with each passing day, it becomes easier to imagine. The odds of the dream becoming a reality would improve enormously if only the United States learned to behave like a superpower again. The Biden administration should abandon its perverse court in Tehran and instead get to work strengthening the three-legged stool that sustains America in the Middle East. One leg rests on the turkey; another on Israel, Egypt and Jordan; and the third on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates.
The Islamic Republic thrives on chaos. Stability is its biggest enemy. An anti-Iranian alliance, made up of Israel, Turkey and the Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, is Tehran’s great fear – and therefore America’s golden opportunity.
Michael Doran is the director of the Center for Middle East Peace and Security at the Hudson Institute.
This article was first published by The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East newsletter.