- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2009

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 focused Monday 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 result — 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 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 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 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 Western-backed 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 Thursday 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.”

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