At a time when the world is discussing if Islam is indeed a religion promoting terror, Today's Zaman Editor-in-Chief Dr. Bülent Keneş has pointed to Iran's share in causing Islam to be associated with terrorism, which he described as “colossal.” According to Keneş, Iran's terrorist activities are mainly what justifies simultaneous reference to Islam and terror. Since Iran has been marketing its revolution as "Islamic" and justifies everything it does with reference to Islam, Iran's terrorist activities have come to be attributed to Islam, Keneş has argued.
Keneş, known for his publications on Iranian politics, has recently released his second book, "İran ve Terrör" (Iran and Terror). In his first book, "Iran: Tehdit mi, Fırsat mı?" (Iran: A Threat or an Opportunity) Keneş discussed the place of Iran in Turkish foreign policy. Now, in his second book, he explains how the administration in Tehran has resorted to terrorist methods such as exporting its revolution to other countries and destroying its dissidents after the revolution in 1979. Like his first, Keneş's second book, derived from his doctoral dissertation at the Middle East Studies Institute of Marmara University, has been published by the Timaş Publishing House. We discussed the connection between Iran and terrorism with Keneş, a hot topic in world politics.
Your second book is about post-revolution Iran's terrorist attacks against the regime's opponents and its efforts to export its revolution to other countries. How could Iran attain this dynamism hot on the heels of the revolution?
This energy essentially comes from the revolutionary romanticism of the early days of the revolution. As the revolution became more institutionalized over time, it started to pay greater and more pragmatic respect to balance. Initially, it was suggested that the Iranian revolution was not only a Persian/Shiite revolution, but that it would inspire all the world's downtrodden. But the revolution failed to maintain this vibrant dynamism. Today, it is hard to say that Iran is trying to export its revolution to other countries. But this does not mean Iran is not laboring to boost its influence and spread its Shiite mentality in a more realist manner. The difference from the early years of the revolution is that Iran now takes into consideration relations with its neighbors as well as the global and regional balance.
In your book, you discuss how Iran assassinated several dissident Iranian figures in foreign countries. These include at least six cases of assassinations conducted in Turkey until 1989. Do you think Iran is still maintaining similar secret service activities?
The assassinations against opponents of the Iranian regime -- including dissident Kurdish leaders in Berlin and former Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar in Paris -- are proof of Iran's state-sponsored terror. These were purely cases of summary executions. These acts not only destroy dissidents physically, but also help to intimidate other dissidents. Since Iran has made terror an official policy employed to silence opponents, it has become a country which is primarily associated with terrorism in the international arena. Today, terrorism has acquired a different dimension. The lives of the leading figures of the Green Movement, which claims that the 2009 elections in Iran were fraudulent, are being threatened. This new style can still be considered part of Iran's terror. The manifestation abroad of this new style is that Iran exerts pressures on the groups who criticize it through its fifth column activities. For instance, there are numerous Qom- or Tehran-affiliated websites and news agencies in Turkey. When you criticize Iran, you are quickly targeted by these media outlets. You receive threats through social media; you may even face character assassination. This, too, is terror. Iran benefits from environments where freedoms are liberally enjoyed, like Turkey, where it can leverage psychological operations.
Is there any concrete evidence indicating Iran is committing state-sponsored terror?
There are many examples. The most remarkable of these is the killing of Iran's dissident Kurdish leader at a restaurant called Mykonos in Berlin in 1992. Following the assassination, German authorities conducted an in-depth investigation under the Mykonos case and concluded that the murder was committed by the Iranian Secret Service at the behest of the administration in Tehran. After a three-year investigation, a Berlin criminal court held that the assassination had been decided by an Iranian "Special Affairs Committee," members of which included Iran's spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati and Ali Fallahyan, the head of the secret service. In addition, some of the people who were suspected to have been involved in the attacks against the Jewish Community Center in Argentina in 1994, which killed 80 people, were later promoted to high-profile positions within the state. For instance, one of them was appointed as an ambassador to a country in Africa.
Isn't it a bit unfair to put all the blame for terror activities around the globe on Iran?
Absolutely not. In my book, I defend Iran from various angles. I am not an anti-Iranian person. Iran was accused of masterminding several assassinations to curtail the flourishing democratic Islamic movements in Algeria and Tunisia. These claims were not true. Likewise, in the unsolved murders against Uğur Mumcu, Bahriye Üçok, Ahmet Taner Kışlalı and several other Kemalist/secularist intellectuals in Turkey, Iran was the usual suspect. Yet, as we find out today, these assassinations had actually been masterminded by certain clandestine networks nested within the state like Ergenekon -- a clandestine organization burrowed within the state trying to overthrow or manipulate the democratically elected government-- in an effort to create certain threat perceptions in the society.
In particular, in the post-9/11 world, more frequent references were made linking Islam and terrorism. But, before the collapse of the Twin Towers in a terrorist attack, Iran had launched a number of violent attacks across the globe. What is Iran's share in the formation of the global urge to describe Islam as a religion promoting terror?
Iran's responsibility in this respect is of course colossal. Iran's terrorist activities are mainly what justify simultaneous reference to Islam and terror. Since Iran has been marketing its revolution as an “Islamic” revolution and justifying everything it does with reference to Islam, Iran's terror activities have come to be attributed to Islam. The occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran, the strengthening of Lebanon's Hezbollah, the bloody attacks against French and American soldiers and diplomats in Lebanon, the bombing of several oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, several cases of kidnapping people and hijacking airplanes, and the suspicion of Iran's involvement in a number of Western targets around the globe have helped people's minds equate Iran with terror, and Iran with Islam, and eventually, Islam with terror.
Despite the fact that the revolution in Iran had dominantly Shiite and Persian roots, we see that Tehran managed to exercise a certain clout over certain Arab Sunni movements such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). How can this be explained, given their ethnic and religious differences?
A major reason for this was that there had been no alternative source in the Middle East that could offer support to Islamic movements. There had been no model regime other than Iran that had an anti-imperialist discourse, advocated solidarity with the downtrodden and claimed to have undertaken a revolution on behalf of Islam. For this reason, Iran has come to serve as a model for Islamist opposition. These organizations [Hamas and the MB] opted for entertaining close ties with Iran for its backing, despite pragmatic diversities. But in cases of the slightest conflict, Iran has been quick to react harshly against these organizations. For instance, when Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal referred to the Persian Gulf as the “Arabian” Gulf at a meeting, Iranian media networks launched a campaign against him. In this context, Hamas' invitation to Turkey in 2006 was important.
Three types of radicalism on the rise in the region
Can we say that these trends still continue in our time?
Just like the MB, the radical Islamist movements of Turkey have tended to take Iran's revolution as a model. In other words, Iran's influence had been supra-sectarian. Yet in the Iranian political sphere, the Shiite vein will dominate in any conflict between Shiism and Islamic values. By the same token, if Persian geopolitical interests clash with Shiism, Iran tends to give priority to its national interests over its sectarian values. For instance, as regards the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, Iran lends support to Armenians, not Azerbaijanis, despite the presence of established religious and cultural proximity with Azerbaijanis. As the concrete examples of these preferences are also observed by Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, Iran's influence in these groups has started to wane. Yet it is hard to say that this influence has completely ceased to exist.
If Iran continues to back Shiite radicalism, as it is doing regarding the Syrian crisis, do you think Sunni groups will tilt toward other extremes like Salafism or Wahhabism?
There are certain signs for such a shift. For example, no one would expect Salafis to emerge as the second biggest party out of the elections in Egypt, but they took the world by a big surprise to win the second slot after the MB. In the face of the expansion of Iranian Shiism after the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a radical Sunnism on the rise. Thus, there is the risk that the energy accumulating across the Muslim world, which can be tapped into to promote change and transformation, may be wasted in a potential Sunni-Shiite conflict. In addition, there is also rising Jewish radicalism in the region. Today, we are witnessing the right-wing Likud Party shifting toward the extreme right and its coalition partners moving further in the same direction. All these extremist movements promise nothing but more than bloodshed and strife in the region.