Mohammed Bagher Moradi, an Iranian dissident journalist who sought refuge in Turkey nine years ago, has vanished, raising fears that he is yet another victim of Iranian espionage and abduction operations in the region.
Moradi, who fled Iran after a trial for critical reporting and sought shelter in Turkey, vanished on May 30. His father believes his son was kidnapped by Iranian operatives after he was tracked by Iranian intelligence in Ankara for a while. His family has filed a criminal complaint with the Turkish prosecutor’s office in their neighborhood.
Moradi, a member of Saraye Ahl-e Ghalam (Writers’ Association), was sentenced to five years in prison in 2013 for “illegal gathering and conspiracy against national security.”
If their legal status remains unclear, Turkey has become a safe haven or a transit point for Iranian dissidents seeking to enter European countries.
Iran and Turkey have a reciprocal visa-free travel agreement that allows Iranians to stay and travel freely in Turkey for up to 90 days.
Despite bilateral promises to cooperate against human trafficking and terrorism, this has not gone ignored by Iranian intelligence operatives who have developed espionage networks in the country to kidnap or assassinate dissidents.
According to Oubai Shahbandar, a defense and security specialist, Iranian intelligence operatives are still carrying out terror and kidnapping activities in Turkey.
“The assassination of (dissenter) Masoud Molavi Vardanjani in the midst of a busy Istanbul street in 2019 was plainly a hostile act that elicited a response.” “The fact that the Iranians continue to carry out audacious strikes demonstrates how little Tehran cares about international standards and sovereignty,” he told Arab News.
Several suspects have been detained in Turkey because of their ties to Vardanjani, a former Iranian intelligence operative. Mohammed Reza Naserzade, an employee of the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul, was detained in February 2021, but Tehran denied any participation in the murder.
Before being assassinated in Istanbul, the Iranian dissident began posting shocking social media messages on Iranian leaders’ corruption.
Last year, a high-ranking Iranian army pilot who sought refuge in Turkey in 2018 filed a complaint with Turkish authorities, alleging that certain people attempted to kidnap him and his wife on many occasions in order to give him to Iranian intelligence. In September 2021, eight persons were detained in connection with the event.
Turkish intelligence foiled another plan by Iranian operatives to assassinate an Israeli-Turkish businessman on Iran’s orders earlier this year.
Yair Geller, a 75-year-old Istanbul tycoon who invested in Turkey’s machine and defense industries, was targeted by a nine-person network assembled by Iran’s intelligence agency in response to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, whom Tehran claimed was killed in an Israeli operation.
Following a month-long surveillance operation by the Turkish intelligence agency, the attempt was foiled.
The case of Moradi, according to Jason Brodsky, policy director of the group United Against a Nuclear Iran, is just another example of Iran’s long history of using Turkey as a launch pad to attack Iranian dissidents.
He does not believe, however, that the operation was largely motivated by Turkey’s improving relations with Israel.
“It’s more that Iran has discovered a permissive atmosphere to operate in Turkey, not to mention the geographic benefits for its security forces in quickly smuggling their targets into Iranian territory,” Brodsky added.
Last week, Israel’s National Security Council issued a travel warning for Turkey, alleging that “Iranian terrorist operators” there and in neighboring countries posed a direct threat to Israelis.
Israel’s new travel warning for Israelis in Turkey, according to Brodsky, is another another indication of Turkey’s infiltration by Iranian intelligence.
“These disclosures come before of the Iranian foreign minister’s maiden trip to Turkey, scheduled for Monday. Despite Iran’s influence in Turkey, there are still tensions in the bilateral relationship over water, the targeting of Turkish military in Iraq by Iran-backed militias, and other issues. “The news about the Moradi case will complicate the Iranian foreign minister’s travel even more,” he continued.
In February, 16 people were detained as part of a network for their ties to Iranian intelligence in the return of Iranian dissidents to their homeland. Turkish intelligence found the network after a thorough study. They were suspected of espionage, both political and military, as well as kidnapping.
Previously, the network brought another Iranian dissident, former Col. Mashali Firouze, back to Iran, although attempting to kidnap former naval officer Mohammed Rezaei and economist Shahnam Golshani failed.
The timing of the Iranian agents’ abduction attempts in Turkey, according to Shahbandar, is not coincidental.
“As the economy falls and protests spread across the country, it’s an indication of Iran’s desperation,” he said.