Iranians in Turkey: Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
By Behnam Ben Taleblu and Aykan Erdemir
Turkish authorities on Monday detained Maryam Shariatmadari, an anti-Hijab activist twice-jailed in Iran, threatening deportation back to her home country. Although an international outcry from human rights activists appears to have ensured her release for now, an uncertain future awaits.
Shariatmadari’s case puts a much-needed spotlight on the plight of Iranians abroad. While no immigrant, refugee, or visitor group is a monolith, Iranians have long-seen Turkey, which shares a 330-mile border with Iran, as a place to experience elements of a life denied at home. However, the Turkish government’s continued deportation of activists, and the blind eye Ankara turns toward Tehran’s activities on its soil, are a real cause for concern. This is especially true as Iranian investment and tourism in Turkey continue to grow.
According to a video Shariatmadari posted on Instagram Monday, she claimed that her detention was “without reason,” and that the Turkish police ignored pleas to look up her name “in the system” – likely a reference to immigration logs or the nature of her status in Turkey. According to an audio file of Shariatmadari published later by Iran International, she also says she was not given access to a Persian-language translator. The arrest came ahead of a cooperation meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani.
Under the nearly 18-year rule of Turkey’s Islamist president, Ankara has deepened cooperation with Tehran, seeing the Islamic Republic as a willing partner to challenge the Western-led liberal world order. Indeed, in the past the Turkish government has not only provided Iranian individuals and entities a permissive jurisdiction to evade U.S. sanctions, but has actively assisted Tehran’s schemes and ringleaders. For Ankara, Iranians residing in or visiting Turkey are not only a much-needed source of revenue amidst the country’s economic downturn. Each is now a potential pawn to cash in, either through extradition or by ignoring their killing on Turkish soil.
Turkey and Iran signed a “legal cooperation” agreement in 2010 permitting extradition. Ankara ratified it in 2011. The agreement received criticism for lacking explicit provisions preventing extradition if the individual would face ill treatment or capital punishment.
Since then, Turkey has become an increasingly problematic jurisdiction for Iranian refugees, dissidents, and journalists. For instance, in 2017 Turkish authorities threatened Neda Amin, a journalist who had fled Iran in 2014, with deportation as she tried to make her way to Israel. In January 2018, Turkish authorities arrested Arash Shoa-Shargh, another journalist, and deported him to Iran where he was later imprisoned. Last November, Iranian intelligence went abroad and killed Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, an Iranian dissident, in Istanbul. That same year, Turkey also deported Mohammad Rajabi and Saeed Tamjidi, both of whom partook in demonstrations in Iran in November 2019. They were sentenced to death upon their return, but in July 2020, their execution order was halted due to a massive online pressure campaign.
The trend sadly continues. This June, Turkish intelligence detained Abdollah Bozorgzadeh, a Baloch activist. He probably faces extradition to Iran. Similarly, Turkey has threatened Arash Yavari and his wife Masoomeh Hatamkhani, both of whom are journalists, with extradition back to Iran. They fled Iran with their teenage son in 2015 and have United Nations refugee status.
It is a different story however, for Iranian tourists and investors, who pump much-needed money into the Turkish economy. In 2019, over 2 million Iranians visited Turkey, making Iran Turkey's fifth-biggest source of tourists. Turkey remains the most popular tourism destination for Iranians: Over 40% of foreign travel by Iranians in 2018 was to Turkey. When Western tourists may have slowed their visits to Turkey’s eastern provinces, Iranians have been increasingly traveling over the border to Van, where alcohol is available, head covering is not compulsory for women, and shopkeepers are even beginning to learn Persian.
Moreover, according to the Iranian press, there has been a wave of Iranian acquisitions of real estate in Turkey, with Iranians amounting to the second-largest demographic of foreign purchasers. There has also been a reported surge in Iranian registered businesses in Turkey. While these facts ostensibly suggest that Iranians are seeking better economic conditions outside their homeland, they could also represent, from an illicit finance perspective, opportunities for Iran to take advantage of Turkey as a hub for re-exports, money laundering, and sanctions-evasion.
What’s more, since 2016, some 9,000 foreign nationals have capitalized on Turkey’s fast-track to citizenship program by investing as little as $250,000 into real estate. Washington should be cognizant of the potential for Iranians with newly minted Turkish passports to violate sanctions.
The extradition of the likes of Maryam Shariatmadari is not only immoral, but also is a breach of Ankara’s international legal responsibilities. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol provide Turkey with non-refoulement obligations, banning it from returning refugees and asylum seekers to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution. Furthermore, as a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Convention on Extradition, Ankara needs to respect non-derogable provisions for the right to life and the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. The Council of Europe should remind Turkey, one of its 47 members, of its obligations as a signatory state to the key human rights conventions that enshrine the Council’s fundamental values.
Meanwhile, the United States should continue to go after the source of the problem for Iranian victims, by continuing to name, shame and punish Iranian rights violators, all the meanwhile standing with the Iranian people and echoing their concerns. Further U.S. Treasury sanctions that target Tehran’s accomplices abroad, be they in Turkey or elsewhere, would contribute to the weakening of the Islamic Republic’s capacity to intimidate dissidents who have taken refuge in Turkey and beyond.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) covering Iranian issues, where Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian, serves as the senior director of the Turkey program. The views expressed are the authors' own.