Iranian dissidents sacrificed for détente in Turkey

Sectarian tensions between Turkey and Iran are easing and the thawing relations between the two neighbours are becoming an increasing threat to Iranian dissidents who have sought refuge in Turkey, columnist Anchal Vohra wrote in Foreign Policy.

Ties between Ankara and Tehran started to improve in 2016, when the neighbours signed the Astana agreement together with Russia to try and end the Syrian conflict. Since then, abductions, deportations and assassinations of Iranian activists have been on the rise in Turkey, Vohra said.

A 2019 agreement between the Iranian and Turkish presidents at a summit on Islamic civilisation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia resulted in the deportation of dozens of Iranian dissidents. Two of them now face death sentences, Vohra said. At least 3 Iranian dissidents were assassinated in Turkey since 2017, she said.

In June 2020, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Ankara. Zarif agreed that Iran would back Turkey’s preferred side in the Libyan conflict, and in return, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on the United States to withdraw sanctions on Iran.

Soon after, Iran and Turkey launched a coordinated military operation against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Iranian offshoot the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK).

Cooperation between Tehran and Ankara has expanded, and dissidents now face an even larger threat “sometimes from Iranian agents and sometimes from their Turkish supporters”, Brussels-based Iranian journalist Peyman Aref told Vohra.

“I don’t feel safe,” said Nasibe Shemsai, an Iranian women’s rights activist who faces 12 years in prison in Iran for objecting to compulsory hijab laws. “I feel that I am a target in Turkey. Iranian intelligence is everywhere,” she said.

Turkey displays little opposition to intimidation and threats against Iranian dissidents as the approach is based on political convenience, Vohra said.

When Turkey is seeking concessions from Iran, it lets Tehran intimidate dissidents in the country. When it wants to pressure Tehran, “it shames the Islamic Republic by exposing the role Iranian diplomats and operatives have played in renditions and targeted assassinations”, she said.