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Ashtiani, Realpolitik, and the Conscience of Turkey

by AFSIN YURDAKUL in Istanbul

02 Nov 2010 23:4723 Comments
Sakineh-Mohammadi-Ashtian-006.jpgAnkara walks fine line in addressing Iran over human rights concerns.

[ dispatch ] Is Turkey the new hope for human rights in Iran?

When Sakineh Ashtiani, a 43-year-old woman accused of murder and adultery, was sentenced to death by stoning in the Islamic Republic of Iran, her son, Sajad, appealed to Turkey and Brazil to use their diplomatic influence to help reverse the verdict. Iranian authorities rejected Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva's offer to grant Ashtiani asylum, and that marked the moment when all eyes turned to Turkey.

Having brokered, with Brazil's help, a nuclear swap deal with Iran earlier this year, Turkey seems to be among the few trusted friends of Tehran in the international arena. Despite the West's anxiety about the growing Turkish-Iranian rapprochement, the country may in fact be the new hope in convincing Iran to better its notorious human rights record. The question is whether Turkey, under pressure from its own citizens and the international community, is ready -- or willing -- to assume such a role, which requires a careful balancing of diplomatic calculus and care for human life.

When considered from the Turkish side, the debate is a double-edged sword: On one hand, Turkey can take advantage of this opportunity to assuage Western fears over its diplomatic relationship with Iran. It can show Brussels and Washington that having close ties with Tehran can actually help convince the regime to treat its citizens more humanely. On the other hand, the move may backfire if Iranian authorities perceive it as an intervention in internal matters, and its political cost to Ankara could be high.

Proponents of a more proactive Turkish role are mainly driven by concern for justice and human rights. Take Ayse Karabat, for instance, a columnist for Turkey's Radikal newspaper. She wrote that it is a matter of honor for her country to do something to save Ashtiani's life. "Perhaps Turkey still has to work on its own democracy," Karabat said, but it's "the only country in the world that Iran will not regard as a 'Western hypocrite' and whose 'advice' it would not perceive as an interference in its domestic affairs." Karabat thinks Turkey is uniquely positioned because it "knows Iran so well diplomatically," and it is therefore incumbent upon the Turkish leadership to intervene in cases of human rights abuses.

Ben Wikler of the advocacy group Avaaz.org, which started a campaign to save Ashtiani's life, agrees. "Turkey has such a pivotal role," Wikler says, "because unlike many governments, Turkey's government has a relationship of trust with the Iranian government." According to Wikler, the voices of Turkish citizens and leaders matter more than the rest of the international community because "Prime Minister Erdogan has a relationship with Iran that allows him to ask them to do the right thing in a way that they would listen." In September, more than 15,000 Turkish human rights supporters signed a petition to urge Ankara to save Ashtiani's life. The number of people who have sent personal letters to Erdogan requesting he take action is now around 14,000. The organization started a new global campaign today, right after the news came out of Iran that Ashtiani's execution -- now planned as a hanging -- is imminent, perhaps as soon as tomorrow.

Murat Yalniz, a journalist with Newsweek Türkiye, sees political benefit in taking a conscience-driven step. He says it's wise for Ankara to "keep an eye on this case," because "Prime Minister Erdogan may not only save a human life, he can also soothe American -- and to a certain extent Western European -- fears over its new role in the Middle East."

Despite Ankara's claims that human rights concerns form an integral part of its foreign policy, in practice they have rarely been of more than secondary importance. A survey of Turkey's diplomatic history reveals no major interventions in human rights cases, with the partial exception of the aftermath of the 2005 violence in Uzbekistan's Andijan province: Ankara openly criticized Uzbek authorities, at the cost of weakening ties with a Turkic country with which it enjoyed good relations. Turkey was expected to speak up against the attacks on Uighurs in China's Xinjiang region, and it has been sensitive about the condition of Turkomans in Iraq. Yet Erdogan's portrayal of Gaza as a humanitarian crisis, and the heated rhetoric he has directed at Israel over the situation, has put him in an unanticipated bind. According to Arif Keskin, head of the Middle Eastern research division at the 21st Century Turkey Foundation in Ankara, "People around the world started challenging [Erdogan] by asking what he thought about Sudan and Iran, if he thinks Gaza is in dire straits."

Erdogan's efforts to diminish the political influence of the Turkish military created the expectation both at home and abroad that he would speak up when Iran indulged its own increasingly militaristic instincts in especially egregious ways. Keskin explains that the case of Ashtiani has turned into a "sincerity test" for the prime minister. With international attention on Iranian human rights issues magnified by the still vivid memories of last year's violent post-election crackdown, Ankara had to take a step this time.

Turkey in recent years has been closer to Iran than ever before. In the past, the staunchly secular political tradition of the country kept it from cozying up to the Islamic regime, but the ruling AK Party, with its roots in political Islam, has adopted a different course. Ankara's new, more integrative Iran policy has stirred criticism in the West, with many arguing that Turkey is "changing axis" because of the European Union's perpetual reluctance to admit the country into the club.

Those who agree with Yalniz argue that Turkey needs to fix that "illusion" of an eastward shift. Yet doing so doesn't seem high up on the list of Ankara's priorities -- indeed, Turkish officials deny that the country has changed direction. Those skeptical of intervention think that Turkey needs neither the approval nor the appreciation of the West to formulate its foreign policy and doubt that Iran would respond positively to Turkish calls for human rights improvements anyway.

Geneive Abdo, an analyst with the Century Foundation, says Turkey doesn't have much to benefit from openly rebuking Iran because they "don't necessarily want to be in the good graces of the West." She observes that Turkey voted against harsher sanctions on Iran at the United Nations Security Council earlier this year, a clear indication that it does not share the Western perspective on Tehran. According to Abdo, Turkey's approach to Iran is based in realpolitik: "They are going to do whatever is in their interest." After all, she argues, Turkey can not "dictate Iran how to conduct its own domestic politics," nor does it consider itself the "morality police of the region."

Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, also does not anticipate that Turkish intervention in Iranian human rights cases will have much effect. "The reason for my skepticism is not in any way related to the capacity or the finesse of Turkish diplomacy," Maloney says. "It's more a recognition of the obstinacy of this particular leadership in Iran." Still, she thinks it's important for Turkey, "a democracy with a particular appreciation of the dilemmas of Islamic society," to speak up about human rights concerns, and "make clear to the Iranians that these aren't...excuses for American meddling and other troublemaking."

Such are the difficult calculations the Turkish government has to make, for Ashtiani's case has transcended the issue of human rights and gained a complex policy dimension as well. Last month, Turkish officials said they were conducting "intense telephone diplomacy" on her behalf. According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its diplomats have appealed to Tehran several times about the case, including writing letters to Iranian authorities. Turkish sources said the two countries' foreign ministers have discussed the issue in bilateral meetings. For the time being, Ankara is keeping its efforts low-key, effectively remaining on "standby" as it monitors developments.

It's clear that Turkey is walking a fine line. In a recent article for Foreign Policy, James Traub wrote that the Turks "seem to give their Muslim brothers a pass on human rights," and many are watching how Turkey will act this time. "Unlike China or even India, Turkey does not resort to the language of 'sovereignty' when defending abusive regimes -- it takes the 'Western' view of international law," Traub argued. "Rather, its dilemma has to do with its neighborhood: You can't be a regional leader in the Middle East if you take human rights too seriously." How Turkey will handle this case will speak to its abilities as an emerging regional power. After all, it's not only Ankara's diplomatic finesse that's being tested, but also its conscience.

Afsin Yurdakul covers Turkey for Tehran Bureau.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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The DISEASE destroying Iran is the ISLAMIC UN-Republic. If anything, Turkey is becoming infected by just being next to Iran.

Turkey's Islamist government (not yet a regime) got its hands on $18.5B of Iranians national wealth stolen by the Mullahs regime, last year. Did we ever hear what happened to that money, except for PM's declaration of Godly intervention in resolving Turkey's last year deficit?!

Maziar Irani / November 3, 2010 1:08 AM

It is dangerous to all for anyone to ignore Islam-based governments/regimes - whether Iran or Turkey or Saudi Arabia or Sudan or Pakistan.These voices of Allah are fatal dangers to normal and decent humans,- Muslim or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or Jew or atheist or whatever else. Political Islam is the greatest threat to the SURVIVAL of the human race.

S.GUHAROY / November 3, 2010 10:48 PM

As usual, the Islamophobes, such as Guharoy, are working hard.

If political Islam is the gravest danger to human survival - a grand exaggeration - how about political Judaism that takes Palestinians' land by force, which is in fact the root cause of much of what is happening in the Middle East?

How about political Christianity that killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and is trying to take over the US government? Remember? Every morning report to GW Bush about Iraq began with a verse from the Bible, and he himself called it a crusade.

How about Hindu nationalists who murder Muslims in India all the time?

So, set aside your prejudice, and take a look at around yourself.

Vaez / November 4, 2010 4:08 AM

Ms Ashtiani has been accused and I understand from the various media sources been found guilty of both adultery and murder both of which are capital offences in Iran. The 'stoning' to death was for the adultery part but actually not carried out to date. From my research, I found that actually there has been a long term moratorium in place for all such sentences. However, she is still guilty of murdering her husband and therefore according to Iranian law, unless the victim's family forgives her or accepts 'blood' money, than she will have to face the death penalty.
I can understand the opposition to this by those who are in principle against the death penalty but find it hypocritical of those parts of the news media and human rights organisation who did not similarly campaign to highlight and stop the recent execution, by lethal injection, of the American woman of low mental IQ who was found guilty of murdering her husband. This is hypocritical. Unfortunately, the West displays so many double standards over its own human rights record and treatment of its citizens and others within its own jurisdiction as in Iraq and Afghanistan that it undermines its own moral authority to question abuse done by others.
Guharoy sounds like he is a member of the tea party and obviously living on a different planet to the rest of us. For the consensus of world's renowned academics and scientists is that it is man induced climate change that is the greatest threat to the SURVIVAL of the human race. A threat greater than even 'terrorism' and far likely to result in annihilation of millions of people the world over and of course there are also the several thousand nukes in the custody of the world's only super power to ever use it, not once but twice!

rezvan / November 4, 2010 5:38 AM

They lose nothing by sparing her life yet they won,t seem to do it.VERY SAD.

pirooz / November 4, 2010 10:14 AM

As much as it saddens me to hear about Ms Ashtiani's vedict, I do agree with Vaez that these attrocities are carried out by democratic western and eastern governments all the time. One woman's case is in focus and has gained publicity. What happens to the cases where little children were blinded, maimed and killed by Indian army in Kashmir let alone the innocent men and women. Read Arundatti roy's ( well known journalist in India) articles. She was recently under Indian Govt.'s watch and could be charged for speaking out the truth. Imagine that.

moonwalker / November 4, 2010 11:05 AM

This case of Sakineh Ashtiani has caught public attention. I am anti-capital punishment from any regime anywhere in the world. If you agree that killing is morally wrong then it is logical that the punishment should not be the same as the crime.

Aside from that from what I have read there has not been enough evidence brought against Mrs. Ashtiani to prove that she committed murder. Her own son is campaigning on her behalf if he believed her guilty he would not. In other words she may well be innocent of the charges and therefore should be neither exectuted nor imprisoned.

Hilary / November 4, 2010 6:30 PM

I agree that Guharoy comments are inappropriate. However, Vaez comments are inappropriate to the same extent. Why does Vaez mention "political Judaism that takes Palestianians' lands by force" as a threat to the survival of human race, but she/he forgets to mention the Jews as a victim of the unparalleled atrocity in the history of human race, the Holocaust (Shoa)?

Ana / November 4, 2010 6:50 PM

All of us are in this century, all bystanders or wayward travelers of no regard to basic human beliefs/values. Amongst this value is the right of an individual either of which may be a male or female subject, accordingly to his/her best intelligent choices to life. Let us not dictate some sort of mandate or manage to manufacture a rule to either usurp the bussiness of personal independence. Let us not mixed a new fangled religion and use it to apply accordingly and punish those that does not agree otherwise. Mankind should advance from the relics of the past and progress from the past observation/practices, being a better human being than their forefathers. This is the extent of progressing civilization and the application to humanity of a fair civil rights to all or their descendant thereafter. To utilize religion as the means to exploit your political ends only amends the sanity to the few. Let us wake up to reality. This century is for all human being to enjoy, reap their rewards via a civilized world, in the absence of malice.

Anonymous / November 4, 2010 10:46 PM

S.GUHAROY - You are aware that Turkey is a secular nation, right?

muppetzinspace / November 4, 2010 11:06 PM

Let's not bicker about religion here. We're all in this world together and it would be great if we could learn to get along without harming each other so much. We must not dictate how others must live, if their way of life doesn't harm others. Let others be free to have their own god(s) or be atheist if they want.

To impose religious law (such as Sharia) on a country's citizens is a great injustice to citizens of another faith. Laws should be in place to protect people, not to make them live in a way that some or even a majority of the people want. We need to protect human rights, instead of pleasing the dictators of the world!

Anyone can observe that many of the world's leaders "utilize religion as the means to exploit political ends", but that is in no way an excuse to not try to help people like Sakineh Ashtiani.

As Pirooz has said:
"They lose nothing by sparing her life yet they won't seem to do it.VERY SAD."

Daniel / November 5, 2010 3:10 AM

daniel - i don't understand what you are trying to say. If you are saying it is wrong for a country that is 95% Muslim to apply its own law in deference to the minority who do not subscribe to Islam, then what is your opinion about Israel, France and other Western states who also say the same things to their minorities- Israel is asking its non-Jewish minorities to swear an oath that they accept it as a Jewish state and France is infringing on the personal liberty and choice of a small minority of Muslim women to wear the burqa. Sakineh Ashtiani has not denied that she is a (Shia) Muslim woman and has apparently self confessed to adultery and murder. As far as I am aware, the reason that Ms Ashtiani's sentence has not been carried out to date is because all such sentences are subject to judicial review. otherwise her sentencing by a provincial court has been long overdue. Rather than jumping to conclusions should people not wait for the final verdict of Iran's Chief Justice rather than politicising everything that Iran does or does not do.

BTW what is your opinion of the execution of Teresa Lewis who was similarly guilty of murdering her husband and given a lethal injection under US law. Would you therefore say US law is barbaric and uncivilised and was Christian compassion shown and her execution prevented by President Obama and the Governor of Virginia??

I suggest you hold up a mirror up to your selves first before accusing Iran of the worst?

rezvan / November 5, 2010 4:37 AM

Tortuous logic gets us nowhere. We can hold up a mirror to ourselves while accusing Iran of the worst. The US legal system is light years ahead of Irans, still they have executed innocent people in the past, and in capital cases a mistake or miscarriage is unrectifiable. Even Mao admitted it is easy to take off someones head but impossible to reattach it. Europeans and Canadians can say this case is an abomination,and they do, without being hypocritical. They don,t execute anyone.

pirooz / November 5, 2010 5:30 AM

pirooz- fair point about europeans and canadians not being hypocritical as they do not have the death penalty on their books. But can you explain why the European Parliament did not pass a resolution in support of Teresa Lewis, an American woman with low IQ who pleaded guilty to murdering her husband as well as having extra-marital relationships with her two accomplices. The European parliament voted overwhelmingly condemning Iran over the Ashtiani case but not a pip over the Lewis case. No calls from Mr Hague or Mr Kouchner, or front page headlines for Ms Lewis. No calls from the Pope or any other Christian leaders to show some Christian compassion. Surely she was also a human being, and one who was mentally deficient and even apologised to her stepdaughter Kathy for what she had done. It is right that where appropriate we should express outrage at an act of injustice or oppression but let us be inclusive about it and not, because of deficiencies in the IR system, lose our sense of balance. Western politicians and media, as a rule, are not and have never been interested in the welfare of ordinary Iranians or for that matter of any other developing country. They are only interested in highlighting that which they believe will serve their interests whatever that maybe and at present due to the severe economic problems that their folks are suffering from and the impending erosion of their living standards and rights, makes Iran, Muslims and Islam as a good scapegoat and general distraction. The danger however is that if their problems worsen that they may launch a war against Iran and Iran must be ready to defend itself.

rezvan / November 5, 2010 5:04 PM

It seems that everyone is getting off topic by bickering about hypocracy and other countries' policies. The issue at hand is that Ashtiani was accused of murder, but the facts are that she was first accused of adultery *years* after her husband's death, and then sentenced to stoning. Her lawyer was exiled, she was tortured into confessing, her son (whom I imagine wouldn't advocate for her if she were truly guilty) then called for the help of Brazil and Turkey, which got him and her second lawyer in jail, and apparently tortured as well. After the decision to have Ashtiani stoned was repealed, the Iranian government said they were to hang her for murder.

Everyone is comparing the American system or the Gaza conflict to this situation, when the reality is that Ashtiani is most likely innocent and the Iranian government is going on a crusade for no obvious reason other than to just kill this woman. Debate the West's policy all you want, meanwhile, this woman's going to die. And no one really knows why.

Veronica / November 5, 2010 6:34 PM


I was not talking about founding of Israel - although that is and has been the subject of heated debates over the years.

I was talking about take over of the West Bank, looting its water resources, expelling Palestinians from the most fertile regions. I was talking about a systematic destruction of the presence of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. I was talking about take over of Gaza, then evacuating it and converting it to the largest open air jail in the world with 1.5 million "inmates." All these actions gave rise to "political Islam" that the Islamophobe Guharoy is. Israel's occupation of Palestinians land is the root cause of most of the problems in the Middle East.

As I told Guharoy, open your eyes, and take a look around yourself.

Vaez / November 5, 2010 7:14 PM

Rezvan - thanks for Your reply to my comment. To answer Your questions:

Indeed I find it is wrong for a country that is 95% Muslim, to apply Muslim law in deference to the minority who do not subscribe to Islam. Western countries are wrong too, when they do the same things to their minorities.

In my opinion, laws should be in place to protect people. Therefore murder, theft, and many other things that hurt others should be prohibited by law. But some things - such as freedom of speech - are too important to forbid, even if others may get hurt by it.

Punishment should be in proportion to the crime, but not as severe as "an eye for an eye". This brings me to the subject of Israel and Palestine. Suppose that every time Israel is attacked by Palestinians they strike back with an equal or greater force. Suppose Palestine would retaliate with an equal infliction of harm. Both parties consider themselves just, but this is exactly the problem with "an eye for an eye".
"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." - Mahatma Gandhi

With laws enforced by governments, a big problem is that most serious offenses cannot be 100% proven. People have been proved innocent after years of imprisonment. Therefore, there are probably innocent people in prisons right now who will never be proven innocent. In my opinion capitol punishment is wrong, the execution of Teresa Lewis (convicted of murdering her husband in the US) was wrong.

Non-Jewish people shouldn't have to swear an oath that they accept Israel as a Jewish state.

People in France should be free to wear a burqa if they want, except in situations where facial identification or facial expression is important. For example, the police should be able to compare a persons's face to a passport photograph.

I read that Sakineh Ashtiani only confessed to adultery and murder after having been tortured. Furthermore, the fact that her Tabriz lawyer (Javid Houtan Kian) was arrested along with two German reporters for giving interviews to the western media, suggests that there has not been a fair trial.

We can hold up a mirror to ourselves. However, seeing one's own wrongdoings doesn't mean Iran's leaders cannot be accused of doing wrong. Furthermore, if my government, family or neighbours do something wrong, that doesn't mean I approve of it or support them.

Daniel / November 6, 2010 12:19 AM

Look you can always find excuses,reasons, justifications for killing, whether its war, resistance,upholding the power of a given state, or the 'integrity' of the justice system etc., etc.. Do you really want to be in that business? I dont. The Europeans and others are aware of and mutter about venal, extremists who quite often run the affairs of the US, and the hang-em-high brigade but still the US has a legal system.Yes politicians are terrified to be known as death-sentence killers, in a cowardly way they believe the BS about the US being a centre-right, pro-capital punishment nation but noone can point to a scientific survey to prove this.When I look at Irans justice system I don't see any thing other Taliban -style lynch mobs. You are not going to defend Iran from US attack by killing a helpless woman or handing out 20-year sentences to Internet bloggers like you and I.

pirooz / November 6, 2010 12:37 AM

Daniel- Quite frankly, however honourable and deeply held your views may be held, they are one in a million. When Sarkozy and the full French parliament take a vote to ban the burqa (without a single vote against) they do so in the name of the French people and defence of France's cherished values. When an American Christian pastor chooses to have a Koran burning day as an expression of his right to free speech and thereby injures the feelings of millions of his fellow Muslim believers, who affirm and attest and respect Jesus (the attributed founder of the Christian Church) and consider it blasphemous and disrespectful to dishonour his name in any way, then there must be something deeply wrong with the psyche of the person. BTW, Israel does strike back with far greater force and for every Israeli killed to date there have been at least 10 Palestinians killed too. It also practices regular collective punishment, the Gaza siege is a good example of this and so was the invasion of Lebanon a few years back and the Qana tragedy.

rezvan / November 6, 2010 3:58 AM

Rezvan - I was aware of the collective punishment tactics of Israel, such as the Gaza siege, but I chose my words because it was only an example, not meant to blame a certain group of people. After all, I don't know all the facts, I'm not an expert on the middle east. I don't think military strikes or terrorist acts will solve anything. Just as treating Iran as some sort of an enemy won't help mrs. Ashtiani.

I truly believe that Martin Luther King Jr was right, when he said: "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend."

Have a nice day.

Daniel / November 7, 2010 2:30 AM

Of all the mass deaths that are occuring in the world today, the media, politicians, and easily manipulated public suddenly cares about one woman in one village in Iran that has murdered her husband.

This is an anti-Iranian political agenda. Don't pretend its anything else.

M. Ali / November 7, 2010 1:00 PM

No.it might be an anti-Iranian-regime agenda.The regime that doesn't represent the people.The one that faked the election and killed and arrested a no. of people.There is a difference.I can understand why you wouldn't be concerned by one woman in one village who never murdered her husband, you are more worried about other events elsewhere such as Burma,Zimbabwe,Palestine,Sudan,Tibet,Uzbekistan,Iraq etc..Peoply like you are too busy, to worry about one paltry individual.Every minute of every day , I suppose you are busy with these larger issues. A geo-politician.The mass deaths are occuring usually because the individual one doesn't matter. One by one becomes millions.

pirooz / November 8, 2010 2:37 AM

Please don't spread lies. THere has been no evidence there has been a fraud in the elections.

M. Ali / November 8, 2010 12:56 PM