Iranians are leaving their country for neighboring Turkey in growing numbers. Image: Twitter/Middle East Eye

Iranians are buying real estate in Turkey in hope of acquiring citizenship and leaving behind the bitter realities of life in Iran’s failing state and economy.

Foreign nationals who purchase Turkish houses, apartments, offices, shops or land worth at least US$250,000 can obtain Turkish citizenship, according to the Turkish government’s citizenship by property investment scheme.

The previous threshold was $1 million but Ankara slashed the minimum purchase in 2018 amid an economic crisis and eyeing increased investment by well-to-do Persian Gulf citizens as well as would-be Iranian immigrants.

Immigration from Iran to Turkey has steady risen in recent years, with the first wave starting in 2009 following a disputed, violent presidential contest that saw the reelection of the hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who cracked down on dissidents at home and wreaked havoc on Iran’s relations with the international community through his nuclear brinkmanship and adventurous foreign policies.

The second wave noticeably started following US President Donald Trump’s May 2018 decision to pull America out of the Iran nuclear deal and impose harsh new economic sanctions. Iran’s economy has been in tatters ever since, driving an ever-growing number of Iranians to seek their livelihoods abroad.

An Iran Migration Outlook 2020 report published by the Iranian government put the number of Iranian migrants worldwide at 1.93 million in 2019, representing 2.3% of the country’s 82.9 million population.

Unofficial estimates, however, put the Iranian diaspora figure closer to 3 million, of which an estimated 67,000 Iranians now reside in neighboring Turkey. Iranian passport holders can travel visa-free to only five countries worldwide; they can travel to another 31 by visa on arrival.  

Turkey’s General Directorate of Deeds and Lands data indicates 6,694 foreign nationals were granted Turkish nationality through property purchases between 2017 and 2019. Iranians lead the league with 1,475 buyers in the two-year period. Iraqis came second, followed by Afghans.

The figures jumped substantially in 2020 with 7,189 Iranians purchasing Turkish property, according to Turkish Statistical Institute data.

The rise in purchases can be attributed to the steep depreciation of the Iranian rial, which lost around 50% of its value against the US dollar in 2020, unchecked hyperinflation, a worsening economy and rising concerns of a military showdown with the US.

The Iranian currency depreciated sharply against the US dollar in 2020. Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency via AFP Forum

Still, high-ranking Islamic Republic authorities have openly voiced dismay at the growing number of Iranians who are moving their capital and resources out of the country to buy homes and land in Turkey and other places.

In August 2020, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to penalize those who purchase real estate abroad during a time of crisis at home.

“Profiteering activities such as the importing of luxury goods or purchasing of real estate overseas must be penalized,” he said in a virtual meeting with Rouhani’s cabinet members.

At a time Iran watches its foreign currency reserves deplete and desperately seeks investment to keep its beleaguered industries and energy sector afloat, the leadership is keen to prevent Iranians from sending their funds abroad.

Iranians are not only buying houses and land in Turkey to escape their nation’s economic plight. They are also snapping up property in states as diverse as Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Spain in hopes of attaining citizenship through investment, according to local reports.  

Mastoureh Fathi, an assistant professor at the School of Sociology at the University College Dublin says that Turkey is a popular destination for Iranian investors, tourists and citizenship applicants because it is affordable and allows for visa-free entry to Iranian passport holders.

“Many Iranians also feel they share cultural characteristics with the Turkish society, in terms of food, music and history, which attracts a lot of Iranian tourists,” she said. “Geographical proximity is also a factor which allows cheaper modes of travel.”

Yet for many Iranians who settle in Turkey, the ultimate destination is Europe. Iranian nationals are unable to travel freely to many European countries, where obtaining visas is often a bureaucratic nightmare.

An Iranian woman wearing a mask walks past a mural displaying Iran’s national flag in Tehran, March 4, 2020. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

All 27 EU member states, the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and nearly all Asian states, with a few exceptions, require Iranians to have pre-approved valid visas to enter. The EU in particular has sought to close loopholes whereby Iranians use second countries to gain entry to the EU.  

In 2017, Serbia became the first nation in continental Europe to lift visa restrictions for Iranian visitors, a decision that spurred an influx of Iranian asylum-seekers into the European country.

The Serbian government reported that some 15,000 Iranians traveled to the Balkan state, with 1,100 of them applying for asylum immediately upon arrival soon after the visa restriction was lifted. Before that, there were no direct flights between Tehran and Belgrade for 27 years.

In October 2018, under pressure from Brussels, Serbia abolished the visa-free prerogative for Iranian nationals. EU officials claimed that Iranian migrants were “abusing” the privilege to illegally enter the bloc.

Some wonder if Iranians are now using Turkey as a similar type of stepping stone to the EU. Turkey, which shares a long land border of 560 kilometers with Iran, offers Iranian nationals 90-day visa-free entry, after which they may extend their stay through an administrative process.

“Iranians see Turkey as a stepping stone to Europe. Many Iranians who come to Turkey do not settle here. Especially in the academic field, they prefer to go to schools in Europe after studying here at the university or having a master’s degree,” said Gizem Aslantepe, a research assistant at The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey.

Aslantepe adds that Turkey is a major beneficiary of Iranian entrepreneurial investment.

More Iranians could be on the way. In recent months, the hashtag “#Normal_life” has trended on Iranian social media with images of Iranians enjoying comparatively jovial lives in exile or abroad including in Turkey.

An Iranian man wearing a protective face mask walks along a street-side in northern Tehran in polluted air and following the Covid-19 outbreak in Iran, January 12, 2021. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via AFP

Although the Turkish government has traditionally treated Iranian citizens well, there is a rising risk that geopolitical rivalries between the two governments could come at the expense of Iranians who have settled in Turkey to escape Iran’s deprivations.

“There is still a possibility of escalation between Tehran and Ankara due to the divisive and polarizing policies on Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh pursued by both countries,” said Esra Serim, a Turkish scholar in France and a former researcher at the University of Edinburgh, referring to two recent proxy wars where Iran and Turkey have been on opposite sides.

“They have just been ignoring disagreements for the sake of economic cooperation… [But] they are still opponents in both Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, they have to sweep their disagreements on regional matters under the carpet in order to be on good terms with each other,” she added.