Ira­ni­ans leave protests, seek refuge in Turkey

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - BY IASON ATHANASIADIS

IS­TAN­BUL | Only a few months ago, Mehdi was ty­ing a green rib­bon around the wrist of for­mer Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Mo­hammed Khatami in the eu­pho­ria sweep­ing Iran be­fore June 12 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions.

In the numb af­ter­shock of the vote, which de­liv­ered a tainted victory to in­cum­bent Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad, the young man took part in protest demon­stra­tions that shook the coun­try. He was ar­rested, re­leased and re­ar­rested. Af­ter his sec­ond release, he de­cided to flee to neigh­bor­ing Turkey.

To­day, Mehdi — who asked that only his first name be used — lives in hid­ing, mov­ing around a suc­ces­sion of non­de­script ho­tels in Is­tan­bul’s Ak­saray district — a com­mer­cial area full of cheap lodg­ings, cafes and broth­els that comes alive at night.

While the world’s at­ten­tion on Sept. 28 fo­cused on Ira­nian mis­sile tests and up­com­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions in Geneva, the protests against what many see as a fraud­u­lent elec­tion con­tin­ued. A video was posted on Face­book show­ing stu­dents at Tehran Uni­ver­sity yelling, “Death to the dic­ta­tor.” More than 100 peo­ple re­main jailed for tak­ing part in pre­vi­ous demon­stra­tions.

Al­though the United Na­tions has not recorded a sig­nif­i­cant rise in po­lit­i­cal refugee applications by Ira­ni­ans since June, hun­dreds of new Ira­nian ar­rivals in Is­tan­bul tell an­other story. Beaten, im­pris­oned or just in­tim­i­dated, they fled.

Dur­ing the day, they visit Amnesty In­ter­na­tional or the Helsinki Cit­i­zens’ As­sem­bly, where Per­sian-speak­ing em­ploy­ees of­fer ad­vice on whether to start the la­bo­ri­ous process of ap­ply­ing for refugee sta­tus. Some­times, they hold cau­tious meet­ings with mem­bers of the U.S. Con­sulate’s Of­fice of Ira­nian Af­fairs, a lis­ten­ing sta­tion for the U.S. gov­ern­ment that acts as a col­lect­ing point for in­for­ma­tion in the ab­sence of U.S. diplo­matic rep­re­sen­ta­tion in­side Iran.

“It’s the only neigh­bor­ing coun­try where Ira­ni­ans don’t need visas, it’s cheaper than Dubai and it’s eas­ier to avoid the spies of the Is­lamic repub­lic,” said one po­lit­i­cal refugee liv­ing un­der­cover in a small city on the cen­tral Ana­to­lian plain who asked not to be named to pro­tect him­self and his fam­ily from Ira­nian ret­ri­bu­tion.

“But Turkey’s gov­ern­ment is also friendly to the Is­lamic repub­lic, and Is­tan­bul is full of ete­laat [Ira­nian in­tel­li­gence],” the refugee said.

Mehrdad, one of sev­eral hun­dred Ira­nian stu­dents in Turkey, ad­vises new­com­ers not to at­tract at­ten­tion.

“I tell Ira­nian refugees here not to speak to any Ira­ni­ans on the streets, nor to ac­cept their help,” said Mehrdad, who, like Mehdi, re­fused to give his sur­name. “The Ira­nian com­mu­nity is ex­tremely tightly knit and well-known to the [Ira­nian] con­sulate, which is pow­er­ful here. Many act as ob­servers for the con­sulate, es­pe­cially those work­ing in tourism.”

Most of the refugees ar­rive by car or even on foot, avoid­ing the tightly surveilled air­ports. Some­times they take do­mes­tic flights in Iran be­fore board­ing an in­ter­na­tional one to in­crease their chances of avoid­ing in­ter­cep­tion.

Turkey’s peak hol­i­day sea­son worked to the ac­tivists’ ad­van­tage, al­low­ing them to min­gle with crowds of or­di­nary tourists.

Those who ap­ply for po­lit­i­cal asy­lum at the offices of the United Na­tions in the Turk­ish cap­i­tal, Ankara, have their pass­ports con­fis­cated. Turk­ish pol­icy dic­tates that while await­ing a re- sult — a process that can take more than two years — ap­pli­cants are to be dis­persed in con­ser­va­tive ru­ral cities away from the cap­i­tal or Turkey’s cos­mopoli­tan west coast.

“There are three types of Ira­ni­ans in Turkey,” said Del­bar Tavakoli, an Ira­nian re­formist jour­nal­ist who was forced to flee Iran and has ap­plied for refugee sta­tus.

“There are those who can’t wait to take off their hi­jab [veil], put on a bikini and hit the beach sta­tus and the al­lure of re­turn­ing home, even if it is to a jail cell.

“If we were in jail, at least we would be in­spi­ra­tional for the oth­ers strug­gling on the out­side,” he said as he wan­dered through a brightly lit lane packed with im­mi­grant cafes. “Be­ing here in Turkey al­lows our op­po­nents to paint us as cow­ards. In Iran, it’s a shame to run away.”

Mehdi fi­nally con­tacted an Amer­i­can diplo­mat in the hope that speak­ing to him might help him leave Turkey. The meet­ing

In Ak­saray, Mehdi spends his Turk­ish li­ras surf­ing his Face­book ac­count and get­ting up­dates from back home. Ev­ery new ar­rest plunges him into a deeper de­pres­sion. “To go out­side Iran is an­other form of tor­ture,” he con­cluded. “A re­spectable death is bet­ter than a cheap life.”

in An­talya; those who have cre­ated a di­as­pora com­mu­nity in tran­sit in Ankara and are wait­ing for a visa to the U.S.; and those who are spread out across sev­eral cities in Ana­to­lia and are wait­ing for a re­ply from the U. N. on the sta­tus of their refugee ap­pli­ca­tion.”

Mehdi drifts be­tween cafes at night, drink­ing cheap cups of tea, ig­nor­ing the pimps who si­dle up to him on Ak­saray’s bustling pave­ments and bat­tling lone­li­ness. He is torn be­tween the shame of ap­ply­ing for refugee was an­ti­cli­mac­tic.

The diplo­mat kept ask­ing ques­tions about Iran’s do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion but never got around to dis­cussing what Mehdi re­ally cared about: whether he could get a visa to study in the United States.

“The Ira­nian gov­ern­ment con­stantly ac­cuses pro-democ­racy ac­tivists of be­ing a Western­backed con­spir­acy against Iran’s na­tional se­cu­rity,” said Potkin Azarmehr, a Lon­don-based ac­tivist who sup­ports the es­tab­lish­ment of a sec­u­lar democ­racy in Iran. “The re­al­ity is that the ac­tivists en­gaged in the strug­gle are ac­tu­ally very lonely hope­fuls.”

At the end of an­other aim­less day, Mehdi sits in the lobby of his ho­tel, watch­ing Ira­nian tourist groups check­ing out on their way to the air­port. He said he was more dis­ap­pointed with the U.S. stance to­ward his coun­try than at any other time.

“We had the im­pres­sion that a coun­try that sup­ports democ­racy in Afghanistan and Iraq would take the ini­tia­tive,” he said. “The words we were ex­pect­ing to hear never came.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has con­demned the Ira­nian crack­down on hu­man rights and ex­posed a clan­des­tine Ira­nian nu­clear fa­cil­ity while agree­ing to hold di­rect ne­go­ti­a­tions Oct. 1 in Geneva.

“We shouldn’t al­low our for­eign pol­icy ma­neu­ver­ing to be­come hostage to do­mes­tic pol­i­tics,” said Hil­lary Mann Lev­erett, a Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who served as di­rec­tor of Iran and Per­sian Gulf Af­fairs at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. She said that in her view, Pres­i­dent Obama wasn’t do­ing enough to en­gage with Iran.

Back in Ak­saray, Mehdi spends his Turk­ish li­ras surf­ing his Face­book ac­count and get­ting up­dates from back home. Ev­ery new ar­rest plunges him into a deeper de­pres­sion.

“To go out­side Iran is an­other form of tor­ture,” he con­cluded. “A re­spectable death is bet­ter than a cheap life.”


Sum­mer’s gone: Anti-gov­ern­ment Ira­nian pro­test­ers chant slo­gans as a pub­lic trash dump­ster is set on fire dur­ing a protest in Tehran on July 30.

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