Iranians Are Trapped in a Sunni-Shiite Détente
Dissidents seeking refuge in Turkey are getting sacrificed to a newfound friendship between Tehran and Ankara.
Iran and Turkey have historically competed on sectarian lines for influence in the Middle East and more recently backed opposing sides in the Syrian conflict. During the last few years, however, they have turned into tactical allies and learned to work around their political differences to limit U.S. intervention in a region that both Iran and Turkey see as their own playground. The first signs of detente appeared in December 2016 when Tehran and Ankara, along with Moscow, signed the Astana agreement, a deal to try to resolve the Syrian conflict among themselves.
Some hailed that agreement, and the resulting bilateral thaw between Iran and Turkey, as a sign of maturity and an omen for the region. But for the Iranian dissidents who had traditionally sought refuge in Turkey, the rapprochement posed a threat. As the Turkish-Iranian relationship has improved, abductions, deportations, and assassinations of prominent Iranian human rights activists in Turkey have increased.
Eisa Bazyar is one of the thousands of Iranian dissidents who fears execution if he returns to Iran but who now finds himself unsafe in Turkey. He was arrested in Iran in 2013 after he exposed Iranian government incompetence in demining the border with Iraq in the years after Iran’s long war with the country. “I remember that the judge sympathized with me and agreed to release me on bail,” Bazyar told Foreign Policy on the phone from Manisa, the Turkish city where he has been living since he fled Iran. “He advised me to try and get out of Iran and never return.”
Bazyar, however, was undeterred and did not stop his activism. In Turkey, he published a novel based on a true story of political prisoner executions in Iran in 1988. His book was smuggled from Britain to Iran, which he believes was the reason that Iran sent its agents to catch him in Turkey.
One day in June 2020, Bazyar was on his way to pay his water and electricity bills when a black car pulled up and a woman sitting in the front innocuously asked him the address of a local girls school. Within seconds, a man at the back of the car opened the door and hauled Bazyar in. “She was a lady and beautiful,” he said, explaining why he stopped for her, but he soon figured out her real identity. “They were Iranian agents,” he said. “The lady had a gun and she said to me, ‘Before we came here, we threatened you on the phone, asked you to be silent, but you kept insulting us. Now show us your manhood.’”
Bazyar was lucky enough to find a way to jump out of the car and escape when it parked for a moment on a hillside, running for two days before he reached a village and phoned his family. A few months later, another prominent Iranian dissident, Habib Chaab, was abducted in Turkey and smuggled back into Iran, also by a female agent. “Every now and then, we see how Iranian opponents are kidnapped and eliminated in Turkey,” Bazyar said. “After every official visit between the two countries, I fear that they have signed agreements to hand over their opponents to each other. I feel the sword of abduction, deportation, and assassination hanging over my head at all times.”
Bazyar’s fears are not unfounded. During the last 14 months, the bilateral engagement between Iran and Turkey has intensified. Even though Turkey denies that it has deported dissidents or allowed Iranian agents to abduct them, cooperation with Iran in this area has been seen to be the lowest-hanging fruit in negotiations to improve relations.
In 2019, the year Iran was beset by protests against fuel price rises, a sign of the country’s disintegrating economy, the number of Iranians smuggled into Turkey doubled. Many feared persecution after Iranian authorities arbitrarily detained thousands of protesters, disappeared many, and tortured several others. Amnesty International reported that at least 304 people had been killed by Iranian security forces. A month after the protests, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended the Kuala Lumpur summit in Malaysia, organized ostensibly to “revive Islamic civilization” but in realpolitik terms, a show of strength against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to challenge their leadership of the Muslim world. The decision to return dissidents was reportedly taken in meetings held between Iran and Turkey on the sidelines of this summit.
The results were quick. Dozens of Iranian protesters who sought refuge in Turkey were deported, and two of them, 26-year-old Mohammad Rajabi and 28-year-old Said Tamjidi, now face a death sentence back home. Since 2017, at least three Iranian dissidents have been assassinated inside Turkey.
The next significant bilateral exchange was held in June 2020, the same month Bazyar was abducted. More cooperation was on display as Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, visited Ankara and agreed to back Turkey in its support for its preferred party, the Government of National Accord, in the Libyan civil war. In exchange, Erdogan called for the United States to withdraw its unilateral sanctions against Iran. A few days later, the two launched coordinated attacks on their common foe: Kurdish secessionists. Turkey attacked the hideouts of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq while Iran bombed the Kurdistan Free Life Party, a PKK offshoot that is active in Iran and has bases in Iraq.
Peyman Aref is an Iranian journalist and activist and was himself a former political prisoner in Iran. He is now based in Brussels and has been keeping track of his compatriots on the run as well as of Iran-Turkey ties. He says cooperation between the intelligence agencies in the two countries has expanded and that dissidents are now particularly under threat.
“Sometimes the threat is from Iranian agents and sometimes from their Turkish supporters,” Aref told Foreign Policy. “Turkey’s intelligence services have very close relations with their Iranian counterparts.” Nasibeh Shemsai, a 36-year-old Iranian architect and women’s rights activist who faced 12 years in prison in Iran for participating in protests against Iran’s compulsory hijab laws, fled to Turkey. She procured a fake passport to travel to her brother in Spain but was arrested by Turkish authorities in November 2020. Although she has been released, Shemsai is terrified that she might be picked up again at any time, either by Iranian agents or by Turkish police. “I don’t feel safe,” she said. “I feel that I am a target in Turkey. Iranian intelligence is everywhere.”
Iranians have been taking refuge in Turkey for decades since entry is visa-free and illegal crossings over the land border can be facilitated through smugglers. But a country that was once considered safe as an interim destination for Iran’s political dissidents, as well as for the persecuted members of Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities, has now turned dangerous.
Critics say there is a marked difference between Turkey’s response to the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and to the intimidation and threats Iranian dissidents face in Turkey. Turkey’s outrage over human rights abuses, they say, is calibrated to suit its strategy and political convenience.
Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, said Iranian dissidents were a mere “bargaining chip” in the relationship. “On the one hand, Ankara limits the political activity of Iranian asylum-seekers and offers Tehran some leeway to monitor and intimidate Turkey-based dissidents in exchange for various concessions,” he said. “On the other hand, when Ankara wants to pressure Tehran, it shames the Islamic Republic by exposing the role Iranian diplomats and operatives have played in renditions and targeted assassinations. So the prospects of Iranian dissidents in Turkey are shaped predominantly by a cynical transactionalism rather than by international norms.”
Iran’s human rights record does not bother Turkey, and Iranian dissidents seem to be just pawns in the broader game for supremacy over whoever is the enemy at a given time. As U.S. President Joe Biden replaces former President Donald Trump and the United States returns to more traditional methods of diplomacy and foreign policy, Tehran and Ankara’s relationship might again witness changes. But like Turkey, Biden too could be accused of double standards if he rejoins the nuclear deal with Iran without holding it accountable for human rights violations. So far, it is not clear whether Biden will seek concessions to protect dissidents before reentering the nuclear deal.