Crime is no gamble for new branch of Turkey’s Iranian diaspora  

Turkey has long been a refuge for Iranians who oppose their country’s regime. But recent claims have immerged that Istanbul has become a hub for Iranian money laundering schemes via online gambling. Now, we begin to look at whether this new branch of the Iranian diaspora enjoys conspicuous protection not only from the Iranian regime, but from Turkish prosecution.

Amongst the Iranian diaspora living in Turkey, a number of social media influences have recently risen to prominence. Among the content of these Iranian influencers are displays of some potentially nefarious activity, as well as bold declarations of power and legal immunity.
 
Turkey has long been a refuge for Iranians who oppose their country’s regime. Thanks to the visa-free arrangement between Turkey and Iran, it is relatively simple for Iranians to flee to Turkey. Founded in trust and shared values of freedom and individual liberties, many from Turkey’s secular elite have long-provided safe havens for intellectuals and activists opposing the Iranian regime. Despite these seemingly harmonious conditions, recent speculation of an increased Iranian secret service presence in Turkey has fomented concern among Iranian dissidents, pushing them out of Turkey and further into Europe.
 
Alongside this development, a new trend is on the rise among Iranians still living in Turkey. In Istanbul, a sizable group of young Iranians have become increasingly visible on major social media and streaming platforms like Instagram and YouTube. Some have even been dubbed social media ‘influencers’ through their promotion of products, services, and websites.
 
One of these new social media celebrity influencers is Milad Hatami. Hatami became somewhat famous on social media after releasing a video he made last December. In it, Hatami is seen selling watermelons out of the back of his Lamborghini. This video even went on to make headlines on national TV networks in Turkey. Hatami is also very active on a social media platform called Telegram, where he sometimes posts photos of semi-nude women and, at times, promotes gambling websites.
 
Aside from being occasionally scandalous, Hatami’s videos usually do not contain much worth discussing. His latest video, however, which at the time that this is being written can still be seen on his Instagram account, is quite disturbing.
 
In the video, famous Iranian actor Mohsen Afshani, is seen sitting in a room in a state of distress. Speaking in Farsi, Afshani uses a crude phrase which roughly translates to “I ate shit,” a phrase meant to emphasize that he is guilty of something. In a troubling display of repentance, Afshani then apologizes for opposing online gambling. Afshani, who also resides in Istanbul, has been outspokenly critical of online gambling, which Hatami often promotes.
 
During the video, Hatami makes no attempt to conceal his role in this disturbing scene. He can be heard off camera saying he “owns Istanbul” and “can do whatever he wants.” Hatami then implies that he “brought” Afshani to this room during the anti-pandemic lockdown, suggesting that some rules in Turkey do not apply to him.
 
Another famous Iranian actor living in Istanbul who often speaks out against online gambling is Bahadur Ünlü. In an interview with an Iranian TV network in Europe, Ünlü claimed that Istanbul has become a hub for Iranian money laundering schemes via online gambling. Ünlü was previously an influencer who promoted such websites, but after fully understanding the implications of what he had been promoting, he became a vocal opponent of these corrupt business.
 
Hatami is allegedly only one of many people involved in promoting this network of gambling websites from inside of Turkey. Iranian rapper Tataloo, who also lives in Istanbul, has been actively promoting gambling websites as well as videos of nude under-aged girls on his social media accounts. Tataloo was recently arrested by Istanbul police, but was released shortly after. Individuals in these circles enjoy conspicuous protection from the Iranian regime, but it seems they have begun to enjoy similar immunity from Turkish prosecution.
 
Traditionally, business attached to this type of organized crime do everything in their power to remain anonymous and conceal their affairs, lest they be exposed to the public in countries founded on the rule of law, as this would result in their ultimate demise. However, the current obsession with social media oversharing has brought about this bizarre trend in which users announce everything, even their illegal activities.
 
One would expect Hatami’s disturbing video to at least be of interest to the law-driven judicial and security institutions in Turkey. But so far, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In the meantime, all we can do is speculate as to what is happening: Who is reaping the rewards of the online gambling schemes being run by this new branch of Turkey’s Iranian diaspora? Why is this new branch not a thorn in the side of the Iranian regime like their dissident predecessors? And most importantly, why is Turkey turning a blind eye to those in this new branch of the Iranian diaspora who claim to “own Istanbul?”