In the past, Iran and Turkey fought sectarianly for influence in the Middle East and recently supported opposing sides in the Syrian conflict. In recent years, however, they have evolved into tactical allies and learned to work around their political differences in order to limit US intervention in a region that both Iran and Turkey see as their own playground. The first signs of relaxation appeared in December 2016, when Tehran and Ankara signed the Astana Agreement with Moscow, an agreement aimed at resolving the Syrian conflict between themselves.
Some welcomed this agreement and the resulting bilateral thawing between Iran and Turkey as a sign of maturity and an omen for the region. The rapprochement posed a threat to the Iranian dissidents, who traditionally sought refuge in Turkey. With the improvement in Turkish-Iranian relations, kidnappings, deportations and killings of prominent Iranian human rights activists in Turkey have increased.
Eisa Bazyar is one of thousands of Iranian dissidents who fear execution if he returns to Iran but now feel unsafe in Turkey. He was arrested in Iran in 2013 after exposing the Iranian government’s incompetence in demining the border with Iraq in the years following Iran’s long war with the country. “I remember the judge sympathizing with me and agreeing to release me on bail,” Bazyar told Foreign Policy on the phone from Manisa, the Turkish city where he has lived since he fled Iran. “He advised me to get out of Iran and never return.”
However, Bazyar was not deterred and did not stop his activism. In Turkey in 1988 he published a novel based on a true story of political executions of prisoners in Iran. His book was smuggled into Iran from Britain, which he believes was the reason why 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 in the front asked him harmlessly for the address of a local girls’ school. Within seconds, a man in the back of the car opened the door and pulled Bazyar inside. “She was a lady and beautiful,” he explained why he stopped for her, but he soon found out her true identity. “They were Iranian agents,” he said. “The lady had a gun and said to me: ‘Before we came here, we threatened you on the phone and asked you to remain silent, but you kept insulting us. Show us your manhood now. ‘”
Bazyar was lucky enough to find a way to jump out of the car and escape when it parked on a hill for a moment and ran for two days before reaching a village and calling his family. A few months later, another prominent Iranian dissident, Habib Chaab, was kidnapped in Turkey and also smuggled back into Iran by an agent. “Every now and then we see Iranian opponents being kidnapped and eliminated in Turkey,” said Bazyar. “After every official visit between the two countries, I fear that they have signed agreements to hand over their opponents to each other. I always feel the sword of kidnapping, deportation and murder over my head. “
Bazyar’s fears are not unfounded. In the last 14 months, the bilateral engagement between Iran and Turkey has intensified. Although Turkey denies deporting dissidents or allowing Iranian agents to kidnap them, cooperation with Iran in this area has been seen as the least hanging fruit in negotiations to improve relations.
In 2019, the year Iran was hit by protests against the rise in fuel prices, a sign of the country’s economic decline, the number of Iranians smuggled into Turkey doubled. Many feared persecution after the Iranian authorities arbitrarily arrested thousands of demonstrators, many disappeared and several others tortured. Amnesty International reported that at least 304 people had been killed by Iranian security forces. One month after the protests, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took part in the Kuala Lumpur summit in Malaysia, which was supposedly organized to “revive Islamic civilization”, but in real-political terms a sign of strength against Saudi Arabia. Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are challenging their leadership of the Muslim world. The decision to return dissidents was reportedly made in meetings between Iran and Turkey on the sidelines of this summit.
The results were quick. Dozens of Iranian protesters who sought refuge in Turkey have been deported and two of them, 26-year-old Mohammad Rajabi and 28-year-old Said Tamjidi, are now being sentenced to death at home. At least three Iranian dissidents have been murdered in Turkey since 2017.
The next major bilateral exchange took place in June 2020, the same month that Bazyar was kidnapped. Further collaboration was seen when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Ankara and agreed to assist Turkey in supporting its preferred party, the National Agreement government, in the Libyan civil war. In return, Erdogan called on the United States to withdraw its unilateral sanctions against Iran. A few days later, the two launched coordinated attacks on their common enemy: the Kurdish secessionists. Turkey attacked the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) hiding places in Iraq, while Iran bombed the Kurdistan Free Life Party, a PKK offshoot that operates in Iran and has bases in Iraq.
Peyman Aref is an Iranian journalist and activist and was himself a former political prisoner in Iran. Today he lives in Brussels and has kept an eye on his fellow countrymen on the move and on relations between Iran and Turkey. He says cooperation between intelligence agencies in both countries has increased and dissidents are now particularly at risk.
“Sometimes the threat comes from Iranian agents and sometimes from their Turkish supporters,” Aref told foreign policy. “The Turkish secret services have very close relations with their Iranian colleagues.” Nasibeh Shemsai, a 36-year-old Iranian architect and suffragette who faced 12 years in prison for participating in protests against Iran’s mandatory hijab laws, fled to Turkey. She got hold of a forged passport to visit her brother in Spain, but was arrested by the Turkish authorities in November 2020. Although she has been released, Shemsai fears that she could be readmitted at any time, either by Iranian agents or the Turkish police. “I don’t feel safe,” she said. “I feel like a destination in Turkey. Iranian intelligence is everywhere. “
The Iranians have been seeking refuge in Turkey for decades, as entry is visa-free and illegal crossings across the land border can be facilitated by smugglers. But a country that was once considered an intermediate target for Iran’s political dissidents and persecuted members of Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities has now become dangerous.
Critics say there is a marked difference between Turkey’s response to the assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and the intimidation and threats of Iranian dissidents in Turkey. Turkey’s outrage over human rights violations was aligned with its strategy and political expediency.
Aykan Erdemir, executive director of the Turkish program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, said Iranian dissidents are just a “bargaining chip” in the relationship. “On the one hand, Ankara restricts the political activity of Iranian asylum seekers and offers Tehran some leeway to monitor and intimidate dissidents based in Turkey in exchange for various concessions,” he said. “On the other hand, if Ankara wants to put pressure on Tehran, it will put the Islamic Republic to shame by exposing the role played by Iranian diplomats and activists in renditions and targeted attacks. The prospects for Iranian dissidents in Turkey are thus shaped more by cynical transactionalism than by international norms. “
Iran’s human rights record doesn’t bother Turkey, and Iranian dissidents seem like just pawns in the broader game for supremacy over who is the enemy at any 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-Ankara relations could change again. But like Turkey, Biden could be accused of double standards if he rejoins the nuclear deal with Iran without holding it accountable for human rights violations. It is not yet clear whether Biden will seek concessions to protect dissidents before re-entering the nuclear deal.