Iran pushes apolitical citizens towards a life of self-exile

Iran pushes apolitical citizens towards a life of self-exile
4 min read
27 February, 2023
Despite the government's claims about facilitating the return of dissidents to the country, even nonpolitical Iranians have chosen not to return home out of fear of persecution.
Protesters in Haymarket hold a banner showing children who they say have been killed by the regime in Iran, and a Free Iran banner, during the demonstration, on 25 February 2023. [Getty]

"The only reason for us to visit Iran was to spend a little time every two or three years with our families," says an Iranian surgeon living in Canada since 2012 with her husband, a physician. 

However, the couple, concerned about persecution by the Iranian judiciary, decided not to return to Iran this year, and instead planned to go to Turkey in the summer. At the same time, their families would travel to Turkey, and they will reunite for two weeks.

"No one knows what will happen to you when you enter Iran. Do they confiscate your passport at the airport? Do they let you leave on the day of your return flight? There is no logic behind what the government does, so we decided not to risk it this year," continues the Iranian-Canadian surgeon.

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This couple is not the first Iranians who have travelled to Turkey to visit their families living in Iran. Since the 1979 revolution, this has been the easiest way for Iranian dissidents and anti-government activists to see their loved ones. 

Following the revolution, it has become more and more difficult for ordinary Iranians to obtain a tourist visa to most countries in the world. But based on a 59-year-old agreement between Tehran and Istanbul, no visa is needed for their residents to travel between the two countries. 

While the parents and siblings of Iranians living in Europe, the Americas and Australia cannot get a visa to travel to those countries, Turkey is the last option for them to spend a few days with family members.

However, what is new in this trend is that even the most apolitical Iranians decide to go to Turkey instead of going back to Iran.

Fear of being used as "bargaining chips"

The biggest concern for the Iranian-Canadian couple is not their political activities but their dual citizenship.

"I have never been interested in politics, which was one of the main reasons for me to immigrate to Canada. I love my job and want to live where I can do my job without any political pressures. But now the Canadian citizenship that I hold could be a source of issues," the surgeon explains to The New Arab.

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In recent years, on several occasions, the Iranian government arrested several of its citizens who hold a second citizenship. Those were freed after Iran's frozen assets were released in prisoner swap agreements.

On 15 February, the US outlet NBC News reported that Washington and Tehran were in indirect talks to secure one of those agreements. This news for over 1.3 million Iranians living abroad with dual citizenship means the government would need new bargaining chips soon.

"Each time I'm in Tehran's international airport, I feel like dying of stress," tells TNA, a former Iranian journalist living in Sweden for the past nine years and does not work as a journalist anymore.

"It really doesn't matter what you do, what you say, or even who you are," adds the Iranian-Swedish, who travelled back home only once since settling in Sweden.

"If you fit in with their scenarios, then you are at risk of being arrested. And their scenarios are more illogical and unpredictable when they face social movements like what we are experiencing now," he continues, referring to the anti-government demonstrations that began after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini in September 2022.

Government urges Iranians to return home

Amid the growing fear of Iranians with dual citizenship, the government has announced a new plan, encouraging them to return to their place of birth.

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On 11 February, in a ceremony marking the 44th anniversary of the 1979 Revolution, the ultra-conservative President Ebrahim Raisi declared a new programme, based on which his government would facilitate the return of Iranians from other countries. 

Riaisi said the scheme aimed at encouraging the return of those who stayed abroad in fear of being prosecuted in Iran for their political activism.

"You must be foolish to believe what they say," stresses an Iranian-Australian accountant who left Iran after he was arrested during the 2009 Green Movement. That year, thousands of Iranians protested against the rigged elections in which the hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected. 

"Instead of facilitating the return of Iranians, they'd better stop spying on us outside the country. They'd better stop harassing our families in Iran," says the Iranian-Australian, who has never visited Iran after he left the country in 2010.

His remark was in reference to a 14 February announcement by the Australian government, revealing its security agencies had foiled an Iranian surveillance operation against an Iranian-Australian activist critical of the Iranian government.

"Since I came to Australia, I have not participated in any political protests, but yet, I don't know what will happen to my family or me if I return," he adds.

"Until this regime is in power, I won't go back. I don't want to experience again what I experienced in prison."