Turkey is concerned over recent reported Iranian offensives in the oil-producing region of northern Iraq. The government in Ankara apparently views such moves as an escalation of the seven-year-old war that could force some kind of a Turkish counteraction. The Turkish government, Foreign Ministry sources say, has renewed warnings to Iran that it would view an attack on the Iraqi-Turkish pipeline -- which carries oil from Iraq's Kirkuk oilfields to Iskenderun in Turkey -- as a grave development damaging Turkey's interests.
Foreign Minister Vahit Halefoglu, the sources say, stressed to Iran's visiting deputy foreign minister a few weeks ago that Turkey wants to stay neutral in the Gulf war, but could not remain a spectator if its ``crucial interests'' were harmed. Mr. Halefoglu also stressed that Turkey wanted the Iraqi-Turkish oil pipeline to remain outside the range of attacks -- either by Iranian forces or Iranian-backed Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq.
The Iranian minister later told the press that Iran could not guarantee that the pipeline would not be bombed. ``We are at war with Iraq and we cannot give any assurances to any country,'' he said. A Turkish official privately described this as an ``unfortunate statement.''
Iran has so far refrained from making the Kirkuk pipeline and the pumping stations a major target for attack. But a few weeks ago, Tehran Radio reported attacks by Kurdish guerrillas, backed by Iranian troops, on oil installations in the region. The reports were later found to be inaccurate. Iraqi and Turkish officials, as well as visiting journalists, reported no damage in the area. However, officials here find Iranian reports alarming, observers say, since it indicates that Iran is apparently disregarding Turkey's earlier warnings.
The issue has led to speculation in the Turkish press about a possible Turkish military operation to prevent the ``fall'' of Kirkuk to Kurdish-Iranian forces. According to these reports, Turkey would send troops to the Kirkuk area if it felt the region were threatened by Iranian-Kurdish forces. Military sources have said privately that they are working on contingency plans, including military intervention.
A former Turkish intelligence officer and opposition member, Huseyin Avni Guler, claims to have evidence that the United States is encouraging Turkey to consider such military action in the event of an all-out Iranian attack on Kirkuk. The ultimate goal of this plan, Mr. Guler says, would be for Turkey to control the Kirkuk area and for US rapid deployment forces in the region to stand by against any possible Soviet action. According to Guler, the Turkish forces would thus prevent Iranian, and possibly Syrian, troops from occupying parts of Iraq and upsetting the region's balance of power.
``Such an action might be welcomed with pride by many Turks,'' Guler says. ``But it is important that Turkish public opinion be aware of this plan, because of the great dangers it presents for Turkey'' of becoming embroiled in the conflict.
Turkish officials dismiss the reports about possible Turkish military action in Iraq, as do US officials here. However, observers say, Turkey has several reasons to be concerned about any Iranian or Kurdish designs on northern Iraq:
The Kirkuk-Iskenderun pipeline is economically important to Turkey. It meets one-third of Turkey's oil needs; it also brings in some $300 million in Iraqi rental fees for the pipeline, which is one of Iraq's main outlets for oil exports. Last year, 46.5 million tons of oil were pumped through the pipeline. The Turks closely watch and protect the larger part of the pipeline that lies within their territory.
The Kirkuk-Mosul region is inhabited by about 1 million ethnic Turks of Iraqi citizenship. The Turks have historically viewed this region as having been taken away from it at a time of political weakness. Prof. Aydin Yalcin of Ankara University recalls that the status of the Kirkuk-Mosul area was not determined at the 1923 conference at which the borders of modern-day Turkey were drawn. Two years later, the area was ceded to Britain, which later handed it to Iraq. Many Turks feel that if Iraq is split and the Iranians occupy the north, Turkey should try to recover the area.
Turkey has long been concerned over any action by Kurdish guerrillas to establish a state or control a region along its borders. The Turkish government is already engaged in a fight against Kurdish guerrillas in southeastern Turkey. If the Kurds, an ethnically distinct group, established their authority in the Kirkuk region, Turkey would consider this a serious threat to its security.
The question is whether Turkey would indeed take military action if its national interests seemed endangered. Former Foreign Minister Ihsan Sabri Caglayangil warns that Turkey might be forced to take some action if its vital security interests are threatened. But another former foreign minister, Hasan Isik, says Turkey should stay away from ``adventures'' and claims the West wants to push Turkey into such an action in order to stop Iran.
It is widely accepted here that Turkey would not step into the fray merely to recover Kirkuk. But it is also agreed that Ankara wants to make clear to Iran that it will not accept the destruction of the pipeline or the occupation of northern Iraq by Iranian-backed Kurds.