By abducting its dissidents on Turkish soil, Tehran is testing Ankara's patience

While Iran's intelligence services have long used Turkey as a playground to eliminate dissidents, the recent kidnapping of Habib Chaab in Istanbul is testing Ankara's limits. While a visa-free regime between Turkey and Iran has made it easier for Iranian dissidents to come here, the Iranian secret services have also benefited from it. 

This comes as a second Khashoggi moment in Turkey. A Iranian dissident called Habib Chaab came to Istanbul to meet with a woman - said to be his ex-wife - only to end up back in Iran. He was last seen blindfolded on Iranian TV channels.

Chaab’s abduction was like a scene from a spy movie. Chaab’s ex-wife invites him to Turkey and offers to hand him some money when they meet. But as Chaab arrives in Istanbul and as gets onto a minivan to meet his ex-wife, a group of mean kidnap him and take him back to Iran.  

Turkey has detained 11 people involved in Chaab’s abduction and his smuggling to Iran. Those 11 men are believed to be working with Zindashti, who is an infamous drug lord in Turkey. 

Cooperation between Iranian intelligence and criminal groups is anything but new. Iran once hired a Mexican drug cartel to attack the Saudi Ambassador in Washington DC.

Kidnapping Iranian dissidents in Turkey is not new either. Last summer, the brother of Iranian activist Masih Alinejad was sentenced to jail in Iran. Masih lives in the US and the Iranian authorities asked Masih’s brother, who lives in Tehran, to cooperate with them. They asked Masih’s brother to invite Masih to Turkey in order for them to kidnap her and take her back to Iran. Masih has been one of the main critical voices against the regime in recent times. She organized anti-hijab protests and continues to be highly influential amongst Iranians who still live in Iran. 

But as Masih’s brother declined to cooperate, he was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of “conspiring to act against national security,” “insulting the Supreme Leader,” and spreading “propaganda against the regime.”

Last year, another Iranian dissident, Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, was shot dead on a street in Istanbul. Another dissident, the founder and chairman of the Persian-language Gem TV company Saeed Karimian, 45, was shot dead in the neighbourhood of Maslak, along with his Kuwaiti business partner.

The vehicle used in the apparent assassination was later found burnt down. Karimian had previously been tried in absentia by a Tehran court and sentenced to six years in prison for “spreading propaganda against Iran.”

In short, Turkey is a playground for Iran’s intelligence services. While a visa-free regime between Turkey and Iran has made it easier for Iranian dissidents to come here, the Iranian secret services have also benefited from it. 

Yet the kidnapping of Chaab might signal a change in the Turkish attitude towards the operations of Iranian secret services on Turkish soil.

The Turkish police allegedly has detailed information and a video of the kidnapping of Chaab. The video and this information were divulged to the British channel Sky News which spread it to the rest of the world. It is said that the Turkish authorities wanted this event to be known internationally. Turkey likely wanted to tell Iran, before the international community, that it is aware of its intelligence services’ operations and that its tolerance has limits.

Recently, ties between Turkey and Iran soured after President Erdoğan read a poem in Baku. The poem was about the “separation” of Azerbaijan. Iran, which hosts close to 25 million ethnic Azeris, regarded the poem as a threat to its sovereignty and national unity. Iran’s political leaders as well as its press united against Erdoğan. 

It appears that Ankara will respond to Iran by reminding it of its importance. There is a delicate balance between Iran and Turkey. Upending it would come at a great cost for both parties.

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