Iran And Turkey: Divergent Political Evolutions

The overwhelming victory of the relatively moderate candidate, Hassan Rouhani, in last Friday’s Iranian presidential election is arguably the most positive realistic outcome that could have been expected. Rohani won almost 51% of the vote, far ahead of second-placed candidate and Tehran mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, on 16.6%.

As we have noted previously, although the presidency is subordinate to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the incumbent still sets the overall tone of national and international discourse. The last time Iran was led by a moderate figure, Mohammad Khatami, in 1997-2005, the country saw a somewhat more liberal climate at home and a noticeable thaw in its relations with the West. By contrast, outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s social conservatism and fierce rhetoric against Israel and the West reinforced Iran’s image as a pariah state.

The unambiguous election result is positive for near-term stability, because, unlike the 2009 election, this vote is not thought to have been manipulated in favour of the ultraconservatives. The 2009 election was followed by mass unrest, as Ahmadinejad’s opponents contested his re-election.

The election of Rouhani should also reduce the likelihood of an Israeli or US attack on Iran, at least for many months, if not longer, as Tehran and Western powers attempt to establish some sort of modus vivendi and renew their dialogue on the nuclear dispute. Israel will find its position more awkward, for it will be far less easy to demonise Iran while it is being led by a moderate figure.

Nevertheless, we also caution against expecting too much from Rouhani. The economy will continue to suffer under sanctions, and, unless he can get these eased, it will remain a source of voter frustration. In addition, Rouhani will lack the power and authority to deliver a breakthrough in the nuclear dispute.    

A Tale Of Two Countries

More broadly, Iran’s presidential election and Turkey’s recent political unrest offer a useful opportunity to compare the two neighbouring countries’ divergent development paths.

From the 1920s, both countries were led by powerful modernisers. In Iran, Reza Khan, a military officer, seized power, making himself the Shah, and embarked on social reforms as well as industrial and infrastructure projects. In Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, also a military leader, founded the modern Turkish republic from the core of the Ottoman Empire and adopted a strict policy of secularisation and Westernisation.

In the 1940s, both Iran and Turkey sought to exclude themselves from World War II, although Iran became caught up in a power struggle between British and Soviet geopolitical interests.

After World War II, with the onset of the Cold War, the geographic location of Turkey and Iran in south-western Eurasia made them essential allies of the West for the purposes of containing the USSR’s influence in the Middle East. Both countries were committed to the Western world, with Turkey becoming a member of NATO in 1952 and the Baghdad Pact (later CENTO) in 1955, a group which Iran also joined that year.

While both countries remained crucial allies of the West, their domestic political evolutions differed considerably. From 1953 onwards, Iran experienced largely autocratic rule under Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who maintained his father’s modernisation policies, which were accelerated by Iran’s oil wealth in the 1970s. Turkey meanwhile swung between periods of military and civilian rule, with three coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980.

A significant point of departure for the two countries took place at the end of the 1970s, when the Iranian Revolution toppled the Westward-leaning Shah and replaced him with a fiercely anti-Western Islamic Republic. Iran was convulsed by domestic political turmoil, encouraging its regional rival, Iraq, to attack it. An eight-year war followed, which severely damaged Iran’s economy. Nevertheless, the Tehran regime survived, and has since the 1980s oscillated between periods of relative economic and social reforms and of more draconian and conservative rule.  

Following a period of heightened political violence in the late 1970s, Turkey experienced its third military coup in 1980. The country had a much more peaceful 1980s than Iran (admittedly, not a difficult task), and from the 1990s began political and economic reforms designed to meet eventual EU membership. Since the 2000s, the Turkish economy has been viewed increasingly favourably by global investors. By comparison, Iran has found itself increasingly isolated under international sanctions aimed at crippling its nuclear programme.

The year 2002 proved a major milestone for Turkey, with the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) elected to power. Turkey has enjoyed economic success, but remains polarised between secularist and Islamist forces. Nevertheless, despite the recent unrest against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey remains the most democratic country among Muslim states in the greater near east. By comparison, Iran, from the mid-2000s, moved towards greater conservatism and repression under outgoing president Ahmadinejad after the relatively reformist Khatami.

Overall, Turkey is clearly the more successful country. In 1980, according to IMF data, Iran had a GDP of US$93.8bn and a GDP per capita of US$2,445, whereas the figures for Turkey were US$94.3bn and US$2,235. By 1990, Turkey’s economy, at US$202bn, was more than twice as big as Iran’s, at US$85bn, and its GDP per capita was more than twice Iran’s. By 2010, the ratio between Turkey’s and Iran’s GDP and GDP per capita had narrowed slightly, but was in Turkey’s favour by almost a factor of two.


The first implication (albeit rather obvious) is that two reasonably similar neighbouring countries that embarked on modernisation at roughly the same time can experience vastly different trajectories. (Another such comparison is that between the Philippines and South Korea from the 1960s, although that is a discussion for another time.)

The second implication is that a linear approach to development and forecasting must be treated with great caution. At the height of his power in the 1970s, the Shah had grand ambitions of making Iran one of the top five world powers by the 1990s. Instead, Iran succumbed to revolution and war, and isolation.

The third implication is that Iran has tremendous scope for economic catch up. There is no reason why Iran should not aspire to reach an absolute GDP and GDP per capita comparable to Turkey. However, Iran is unlikely to fulfil its potential without substantial political, economic, and social liberalisation, and at least reasonably amicable relations with the West. In the absence of a secular counter-revolution against Iran’s clerical rulers, real change in Iran will require the rise of a reformist figure or clique from within the regime. It is also possible that if Iran is defeated in a major war with Israel and/or the US, then the regime could fall, similar to how the military defeats of Argentina in the Falklands War and Serbia in the Balkan wars brought about political change.

Awaiting An Iran-US Rapprochement

Iran’s potential stems at least partly from its geographic location between the Middle East, Caucasus, Caspian Sea, Central Asia, and the Indian Ocean. Iran also has a large urbanised population and thus could become a major consumer market as well as industrial powerhouse. The key to unlocking all this lies in Iran shedding its pariah status.

This does not appear imminent, but keep in mind that breakthroughs can happen surprisingly quickly, as evidenced by Myanmar’s outreach to the West since 2011. US President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar in 2012 and his recent hosting of Myanmar’s president in the White House would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Back in January this year, we published an article, Iran Rapprochement Could Bolster Obama’s Legacy, in which we outlined how a US-Iran rapprochement could play out. This scenario is somewhat more likely now that a moderate figure has been elected president of Iran.     

This Week’s Trivia Question

Last week, we asked, in which early twentieth century Latin American conflict, which ended 78 years ago that week, did White Russian military officers play a pivotal role? And which graphic novel featuring the exploits of a Belgian reporter appeared to parody aspects of this conflict through fictional countries?

The answer to the first part is the 1932-1935 Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay. The key White Russian figure was General Ivan Beliaev (Juan Belaieff), who at one point served as chief of staff of the Paraguayan army. The conflict was to some degree parodied in Tintin and the Broken Ear, in which the Belgian reporter visits the fictional Latin American republic of San Theodoros, which goes to war with neighbouring Nuevo Rico over a disputed territory.

This week’s question is as follows: which former Latin American leader was recently sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for exporting weapons to Croatia and Ecuador in the 1990s in violation of international arms embargoes? Which former Balkan leader fled to that individual’s country after World War II and spent much of his later life there? And which former president (within the past decade) of that Latin American country is of partly Croatian descent?