The detention of an Iranian national is threatening to damage relations between Tehran and Ankara, though the two neighbours enjoy robust trade and diplomatic ties despite a series of regional disputes, including in Syria.
Iran said Monday a citizen had been arrested in Turkey, but denied Turkish media claims he was a consulate employee, amid reports he is linked to the murder of an Iranian dissident.
According to Turkey’s Anadolu state news agency, the Iranian, identified by his initials M.R.N., is suspected of providing forged travel documents for the assassination’s alleged mastermind, allowing him to return to Iran.
— Investigation of gangland-style killing —
The investigation concerns the gangland-style killing in Istanbul on November 14, 2019 of Masoud Molavi, who had helped run a channel on Telegram called “Black Box” since March 2018.
The encrypted social media channel published corruption allegations against members of the Iranian government, judiciary and intelligence services.
Police at the time said Molavi, who claimed to have contacts within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was killed by an assassin who fired a dozen shots.
In a tweet posted a few months before his death, Molavi warned that he was in danger of being killed before he could “eradicate the leaders of this corrupt mafia.”
The detention of the Iranian national that Turkey claims is a consulate employee threatens to shake Ankara’s close relations with Tehran.
“No consulate employee has been arrested,” foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told reporters.
“What has happened is the arrest of an Iranian national upon entry,” he added, noting that Iran was in contact with Turkey regarding the matter. He gave no further details.
— Iran’s agents in Turkey —
The consulate employee’s initial detention last week was revealed by Turkey’s pro-government Daily Sabah, which named the suspect as Muhammad Reza Naserzadeh, 43.
According to the paper, the man who used the forged travel documents to escape Turkey is called Ali Esfanjani, the alleged “mastermind” of the killing.
Iran’s intelligence services are known to have a sizeable presence in Turkey, where many exiled Iranians live, and many more come on vacation.
In December, Turkey’s MIT intelligence Service detained 11 Turks on suspicion of spying and kidnapping another dissident, Habib Chaab, on behalf of Iran.
Tehran accuses Chaab, who was based in Sweden, of being a leading figure of an Arab separatist group known as the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA), which Iran has designated as a terrorist organisation.
In April 2017, Said Karimian, the owner of a leading Persian-language satellite entertainment channel, GEM TV, was shot dead in his car by unknown individuals in Istanbul.
Karimian was a British citizen of Iranian origin, and ran GEM TV from Dubai, offering Western programmes to Persian-speaking audiences, including US game shows and Turkish soaps.