Turkey was aware that a team of Iranian agents had entered the country in June to assassinate Israelis, before they were arrested, a local newspaper reported.
Turkish-language Sabah Daily published more details on Sunday about the Iranian plot three weeks after Turkey’s security agencies nabbed 8 Iranian nationals in three different locations in Istanbul.
The agents, Sabah says, were allegedly sent by a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), apparently to avenge a mysterious series of killings and deaths among its personnel in Iran in May and early June. Iranian blamed Israel for the incidents, as it became more apparent that it had penetrated various domains of government institutions.
Since July 2020, a series of spectacular attacks began against Iran’s well-defended nuclear and weapons development sites, as well as key individuals, such as top nuclear official Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020. Hackings, mysterious fires, sinking of ships disruption of infrastructure continued until the daylight assassination of a key official of Colonel Hassan Sayyad-Khodaei on May 22 in Tehran. The man was reportedly the commander of a secretive unit tasked with terror operations abroad. The Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi immediately vowed revenge.
It is not clear exactly when and how the Iranian agents entered Turkey and congregated in Istanbul. Some might have been members of a ‘sleeping cell’. But Sabah reports that some checked into the same hotel where Israel’s former Consul General in Istanbul, Yosef Levi Sfari and a group of tourists from Israel were staying.
Being aware of a dangerous situation developing, Turkish authorities quietly moved the Israelis to another hotel, Sabah said, but Israeli media at the time spoke of close coordination between Israeli and Turkish security.
In fact, Israel might have been the one that tipped off Turkish intelligence about the Iranian plot. In late May, Israel warned its citizens to stay away from Istanbul and the warning was repeated in the first two weeks of June. By mid-June, the news about the foiled Iranian plot emerged in Israeli media, that also claimed Ankara had warned Tehran not to conduct any such operations on its soil, but it has so far not publicly accused Iran of planning terror attacks.
However, a planned visit by Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was postponed in mid-June amid widespread speculations that the cancellation was related the ongoing controversy over the terror plot. He eventually visited Ankara in late June, meeting with a sombre-faced Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey.
Sabah’s report says that Turkish security found three handguns with the arrested Iranian team, equipped with silencers, and published a photo of the weapons and ammunition, which can indicate Turkish police shared case material with the newspaper.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid spoke with Erdogan over the phone and reportedly thanked him for the close cooperation over derailing the Iranian plot.
Iran has dismissed the accusation of initiating a terror plan and has said the reports are Israeli fabrications to harm its ties with Turkey.