Over the past two decades, Turkey has sought to present itself as an alternative external power in the continent.
Istanbul, Turkey – Nearly a month since he says a team of Iranian intelligence agents tried to drug him and take him back to Iran, Mehrdad Abdarbashi said he was thankful to Turkish authorities for saving his life but worried he is still not safe.
“I don’t think I am safe in any city in Turkey right now,” he told Al Jazeera. “I think Iranian intelligence will come after me, and this time they won’t try to kidnap me, this time they will just kill me.”
Holed up in an undisclosed location in eastern Turkey, the former Iranian military helicopter pilot said he was going to great lengths to keep a low profile, never leaving home, and ordering all he needs online.
According to official Turkish state media, Turkish police and intelligence detained eight people, including two described as Iranian “agents”, on September 24 as they attempted to kidnap Abdarbashi.
The suspects appeared in a court in Van on October 4 to face charges of espionage and conspiracy to commit a crime.
It is not the first time Iranian dissidents have been targeted by Tehran inside Turkey.
Last October, Habib Chaab, who headed the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, a separatist group Tehran accuses of attacks inside Iran, travelled from his home in exile in Sweden to Istanbul to meet an Iranian woman.
Less than 24 hours later, Turkish officials said, he was bundled into a van and driven nearly 2,000km east to the Iranian border, to appear in a televised confession on Iranian television days later.
In February, Turkish authorities said they arrested an Iranian working at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul for the 2019 fatal shooting of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, a vocal dissident of Tehran living in Turkey. Iran has denied it had anything to do with Vardanjani’s killing.
Turkey is not the only country where Iranian dissidents have been targeted – in recent years critics have been allegedly picked up in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iraq, and in July four alleged Iranian agents were charged in the US for allegedly trying to kidnap a New York-based journalist critical of Tehran.
But Abdarbashi’s case highlights a growing dilemma for Iranians in a country that often serves as an initial safe refuge.
Turkey is one of the few countries that Iranians can enter without a visa. Millions of Iranians visit each year, and at least 150,000 hold residence permits in the country, according to Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management.
The ease of travel draws not only those looking to shop or find a good job, but now also appears to make it easy for Iranian intelligence to keep an eye on dissidents in Turkey.
Abdarbashi told Al Jazeera he served as a captain piloting attack helicopters in the Iranian military.
Some five years ago, he offered his resignation from the military but Iranian authorities, increasingly involved in the war in Syria, slapped a ban on him and other pilots from leaving the military, and took away their passports to keep them from travelling.
In 2018, Abdarbashi said he got orders to be deployed to Syria, and decided it was time to flee Iran.
“It was the first time I was being deployed there, and I refused because I did not want to be involved in a proxy war war going on there,” he said, referring to the Syrian conflict.
It took two weeks to reach Turkey’s eastern city of Van, he said, a tiresome journey walking through mountains straddling the border that made his legs ache. In Van, Abdarbashi said he went immediately to Turkish immigration authorities to apply for protection and asylum in a third country.
“From the start, I told Turkish police to take me to another city, I am not safe in Van, but then the [coronavirus] lockdowns happened, and they said I could not move,” he said. Turkish police and intelligence though seemed eager to help Abdarbashi.
“They gave me a special phone and a SIM card, and they said they would be able to listen to my phone calls with that,” he said.
His paranoia soon turned out to be justified: a Turkish national working as an interpreter at the Directorate General of Migration Management, the same place Abdarbashi had applied for asylum, began calling him and asking to take him out for dinner.
Turkish police told him to refuse, suspecting it was a plot to kidnap him. By early autumn though, Abdarbashi said he was approached by another person, an Iranian woman he had met online, who asked him to help her break into an online foreign currency exchange business he was using to make a living at the time.
“When this woman contacted me, Turkish police said you should help us figure out if she is working with Iranian intelligence,” Abdarbashi said. “They gave me a device to connect with her phone, and through that they were able to listen to her WhatsApp calls.”
In a series of recordings heard by Al Jazeera, that woman is heard speaking with the man from the Directorate General of Migration Management, who prods her to get close to Abdarbashi and win his confidence, in exchange for $10,000 in compensation.
The woman first asked Abdarbashi to go on a trip outside the city, which he refused on the advice of Turkish police.
“The second try, police told me, was when she would invite me to dinner, and put some drugs in my food to make me unconscious, so they could kidnap me.”
On September 24, Abdarbashi said, he told the woman to come to his home for dinner. Turkish intelligence followed the would-be kidnappers as they bought supplies to drug Abdarbashi earlier that day.
Around 9pm, the woman arrived with two other men in a taxi, and Turkish police arrested them. In a video published by Turkish state media, dozens of armed security forces are seen swarming the taxi and detaining the suspects.
“Of course, Turkish police and intelligence are still looking after me,” Abdarbashi told Al Jazeera. “But I still think Iranian agents will somehow reach me.”
Spy vs spy
Mahmut Kacan, a lawyer who handles asylum cases in Van and a former UNHCR asylum officer, said the Abdarbashi case seems especially disturbing, and despite the apparent intervention this time by Turkish authorities, the safety of many Iranians in Turkey is far from guaranteed.
Kacan told Al Jazeera he was aware of the suspect working in the Directorate General of Migration Management earlier, through clients who had approached him for help with their case.
“It’s worrying because this guy attends [asylum] interviews, he knows who is who, what their reasons are for leaving Iran, and through him Iranian intelligence can identify any high-profile refugees and where they are registered.”
For months now, Kacan said, Turkish offices that are supposed to register asylum applications have been refusing to take new cases, so many Iranians are not even able to apply for asylum.
Alongside cases of Iranians with what should make compelling cause for international protection, Kacan said he also had clients who, despite receiving that protection, end up being deported to Iran anyway.
In January 2018, for instance, Kacan said an Iranian journalist he was representing, who was registered with UNHCR, was detained and sent back to Iran.
Later that year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Arash Shoa-Shargh was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran for a slew of anti-government activities.
“I don’t think Turkey is a safe country for high-profile Iranian refugees,” Kacan said. “And I don’t really understand what is going on behind these things, whether Turkey or Iran are trying to send messages to each other, or to high-profile refugees.
“These kinds of [intelligence] activities are not new, but what adds importance to these activities is the nature of the Turkey and Iran relationship,” said Galip Dalay, an associate fellow at Chatham House and researcher at Oxford University.
The war in Syria saw Ankara and Tehran backing opposite sides, then cooperating in the Astana process with Russia to wind the war down.
Later, a war in Nagorno-Karabagh and tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran again saw the two countries on opposite sides.
But there have been reasons to cooperate, as well: Turkey and Iran found themselves on the same side again as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE blockaded Qatar, and both countries share concerns about Kurdish separatist groups acting across their borders.
The region’s shifting geopolitics, Dalay said, means it is difficult to tell what the fate of Iranian dissidents in Turkey will be.
“Turkey and Iran will somehow compartmentalise their relationship,” he said. “We will see more tension but not a rupture.”
In fact, last week Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu paid a visit to his Iranian counterpart Ahmad Vahidi in Tehran, signing a deal to enhance cooperation on securing the border, counterterrorism, and combating narcotics and human trafficking.