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Istanbul's `little Iran' creates prosperity, problems for Turks. Iranian refugee traffic strains Turkey's ties with neighbors

These days in Laleli, an old quarter of Istanbul, a visitor can hear Persian spoken widely and see advertisements in Iranian script. Laleli, in the words of local inhabitants, has become ``a little Iran.'' Thousands of Iranians who have fled their country now live here - in apartments or in hotels, on a temporary or a more-or-less permanent basis. Landlords, hotel managers, and shopkeepers seem happy to have them. So do local banks, which change the Iranians' currency into Turkish money. But not all Turks are pleased - the Turkish government is particularly concerned.

The number of Iranians now in Turkey is estimated at between 500,000 to 1 million. Authorities are unable to give an exact figure because there is constant movement of entries and exits - both legal and illegal.

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Several developments have heightened Ankara's concern. One is the recent murder in Istanbul of a former Iranian officer, Col. Ferzani Ahmad Hamid, known as a leading figure in the Iranian opposition movement against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime. Colonel Hamid's was the third murder of an important member of the Iranian resistance movement in Turkey. Turkish investigators tend to believe that this was the work of the Iranian secret police. Other Iranian oppositionists also claim the Iranian secret police is responsible.

Many Turks seem to resent their country being used as a battlefield between rival Iranian groups. ``Turkey, which has always been a land of refuge, cannot tolerate such action and the Iranian government should be warned about it,'' wrote the mass-circulation daily Hurriyet. Another paper urged that Iran be made to spell out clearly whether it had any direct or indirect link with the murderers.

But Turkey is chary of taking steps that might damage its fragile relations with Iran. The matter is also somewhat of an embarrassment because Iran has often asked Turkey to prevent its territory from being used as a springboard for Iranian opposition activities. In the past, the Turkey allowed prominent Iranian resistance figures to stay here, virtually ignoring their activities. But now, Ankara has made it clear this will not be permitted.

Another cause for concern is the growing number of Iranians who try to use Turkey as a transit point for emigrating to the West. Iranians do not need a visa to enter Turkey. Those who leave Iran legally are granted tourist status and can stay here three months. Some of them - particularly the wealthy - apply to stay here. A temporary residence permit is granted to some. But most of the Iranians want to settle in West Europe and the United States.

Many illegal Iranian refugees attempt to leave Turkey through its western borders with Greece or Bulgaria. This, observers say, is a direct result of recent European moves to tighten restrictions on third-world and Middle Eastern immigrants. Turkish authorities only allow Iranians with valid passports and visas to leave for those countries. Hence many Iranians try to cross into Greece or Bulgaria.

Greece claims Turkey is encouraging this flow of illegal refugees. Turkish officials refute the charge, saying it is hard to control every inch of the border. Recently Turkish border guards have tried to prevent Iranian refugees from crossing into Greece by opening fire. But such incidents involving shooting could get out of control and provoke a confrontation between two neighbors whose relations are already tense.

The refugee issue seems to have become yet another point of friction between Turkey and its neighbors.

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