Iran beats Turkey to draw on expulsions

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A brazen Iran toughed it out against Turkey yesterday, turning a row over Tehran's links to a murderous Islamist gang in Istanbul into a diplomatic tit-for-tat and a debate over Turkey's links with Israel.

Tehran launched a pre-emptive strike when a senior Turkish official visiting Tehran, Ali Tuygan, quietly asked Iran on Tuesday to withdraw four Iranian diplomats implicated last month by a Islamist hitman.

Reacting with speed, Iranian officials arrested several Turks and accused four Turkish political attaches of spying, illegal and immoral activities and conspiring against the Islamic republic.

A visibly angry spokesman for the Turkish foreign ministry yesterday denied the accusations and said Turkey had recalled the four diplomats "for their security". If Iran did not recall its own four they would be expelled, he said.

Mr Tuygan had presented a dossier of Iranian links to a series of terrorist killings and kidnaps in Turkey to Iranian officials, but foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati chose to ignore it in a statement.

Instead, Mr Velayati tried to turn the debate into one about Turkey's Middle East policy after it signed a military co-operation agreement with Israel in February.

"Iran is concerned over providing any facility to the Zionist regime on the grounds that such concessions are against the vital interests of the Islamic world and the region," he said. Nothing could be more calculated to anger Turkey than this assumption that Shia Muslim Iran could speak for the Islamic world, while Turkey, which has a nominally secular government for its 65 million mainly Sunni Muslim people, could not.

In injured tones, the Turkish foreign ministry issued a statement pointing out that Turkey had always voted with the Islamic world on resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawals from occupied territories.

Iran's baiting of Turkey coincides with a worsening of Turkey's relations with the Arab world over the Israeli agreement, the division of Euphrates river waters and the future of Iraq. "These `old friends' voice disappointment at the way Turkey and Israel are developing relations independently of them," wrote a foreign affairs commentator, Gun Kut. "It seems they are allowed to make peace with Israel, but it becomes `unfriendly' when Turkey develops its own ties."

Other Turkish commentators railed against Turkey's oldrival Iran, accusing it of increasing support for Turkey's rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, of trying to monopolise the Kurds of northern Iraq and trying to build a nuclear bomb.

The dispute illustrated again the awkwardness of Turkey's relationship with its Muslim neighbours, despite the dream of a Muslim commonwealth.

Diplomats also said it showed the success of Iran's strategy of intimidating it's neighbours. "If Turkey has been careful so far, it is because they know exactly how much damage the Iranians can do if they want to," said one Western diplomat.