The news of three Turkish academics having been held by Iran some months ago, has raised doubts over whether relations between the two neighboring countries are as friendly as officials from both sides describe to be.
Rabia Karakaya Polat and Seda Demiralp Yılankaya, both political scientists from İstanbul's Işık University were invited to a conference by the University of Tehran in late May. Another academic from Koç University, economist Okan Yılankaya, also joined them on their journey to Tehran although not having been invited to the conference.
The three arrived in Tehran on May 28 and were taken into custody on June 1 as they were getting ready to return to Turkey when the conference on the Arab Spring finished.
During their 12 days in custody, the three were interrogated on charges of spying for the United States. In the meantime, Turkish embassy officials contacted Iranian authorities and asked for release of the Turkish citizens who they said were in Tehran only for academic purposes.
Eventually, the three were released on June 12 after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu initiated a telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, a Turkish official told Today's Zaman.
During the telephone conversation, the two ministers confirmed that there was a misunderstanding concerning the purposes of the Turkish academics, the same official briefly said.
The incident, which took place in early summer, became public at a time of threatening statements from top Iranian civilian and military leaders, all blaming Turkey for agreeing to host NATO's early-warning radar system on its soil, warning of unspecified consequences. In September, Turkey agreed to go ahead with a NATO plan to set up an early-warning radar system in the town of Kürecik in Malatya province, which is in the east of the country. Claiming that the missile shield aims to protect Israel and targets Iranian missiles, Tehran criticized Ankara for its decision to deploy the NATO radar system.
Remarks by Iranian officials against Turkey's consent for hosting the NATO radar have been so bold that they prompted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to make a comment on the issue earlier this week. Turkish officials have, meanwhile, kept silent vis-à-vis Iranian criticism of hosting the NATO radar.
“Now, you probably noticed in the last week, even before this plot was revealed, Iran really vociferously attacking Turkey,” Clinton said on Tuesday in an interview with Reuters news agency, while referring to the alleged Iranian plot against the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
“Attacking Turkey because of the NATO missile radar that Turkey agreed with us to position to protect NATO from missile attacks. Attacking Turkey for advocating secular states that recognized and appreciated Islam but were more in line with what Turkey has achieved over the last many years. Really a full frontal assault on Turkey,” Clinton said, according to the text of the interview posted on the website of the State Department.
“And I thought it was incredibly important because Turkey has tried to be a good neighbor. They share a long border, they've tried to get along with the Iranians, and what everyone is learning is that nobody is safe from the Iranians. They have their own logic, their own way of thinking about the world and their place in it. And they're vying with everybody for influence. They're vying with the Saudis, they're vying with the Turks, they're just in a constant state of agitation about their position,” she added.
Meanwhile, reports said that a US team will travel to Turkey soon to brief Turkish authorities on what the US says was a clumsy plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US on American soil.
The US has decided to send interagency teams after some countries asked for additional information on the plot, denied vehemently by Iran, the Associated Press reported, citing a state department official. In addition to Turkey, the US teams will also visit Russia and China, two countries that have reacted with caution to the US statements on the Iran plot.
That the US officials will provide further briefing to Turkish officials is a sign that Turkey may be viewing the US and Saudi accusations against Tehran with some skepticism. No Turkish official has publicly commented on the issue since US authorities announced on Tuesday that they uncovered the plot by two men linked to the Iranian government to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US.
US diplomats have given their host governments information about the foiled plot. At the UN, US Ambassador Susan Rice also briefed top envoys from the 14 other Security Council nations on Wednesday. Allies said the evidence she presented clearly showed the involvement of Iranian officials but left unanswered the question of whether Iran's top political and religious leaders knew about the plot.